When Dr. Christopher Duntsch moved to Dallas, Texas in 2010, his reputation preceded him. He had over 15 years of medical experience and his background saw him becoming a neurosurgeon performing operations on the patients’ spinal cords. Over the course of a two-year period between 2011 and 2013, Dr. Duntsch injured or killed 33 of 38 patients he saw, leading to the grisly nickname “Dr. Death” and leading to headlines decrying his actions, and the role of the medical system that kept him in place for so long.
Duntsch was able to complete his residency after having participated in under 100 surgeries. This was unprecedented, as most neurosurgeon residents complete over 1,000 surgeries before heading into private practice. During the two-year period of Duntsch’s time as a neurosurgeon, his constant botched surgeries left a trail of injured or dead patients and led to suspicion from his colleagues that he was either an impostor or actively trying to hurt people.
In an email sent to his girlfriend in 2011, Duntsch claims he is “ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold-blooded killer.” This piece of evidence would later be vital in the case against him, as prosecutors needed to prove that the numerous botched surgeries were intentional attempts to harm, not simple accidents that occurred during routine procedures.
Some of Duntsch’s colleagues, like Dr. Robert Henderson of the Dallas Medical Center and Dr. Randall Kirby of the University General Hospital in Dallas, pushed for him to have his medical license revoked. The final surgery Duntsch performed was on a man named Jeff Glidewell. Upon botching the surgery so badly that Glidewell was left paralyzed on his left side, Dr. Kirby wrote a complaint to the Texas Medical Board in which he accused Duntsch of purposefully maiming his patients.
Duntsch stood trial of numerous counts of aggravated assault, with prosecutors alleging that he’d been acting out of malice in an attempt to cause injury or death, not as a doctor trying to heal patients. Prosecutors alleged that Duntsch was motivated to keep practicing as a surgeon despite his numerous mistakes in the operating room due to his severe personal debt.
Duntsch’s lawyers, meanwhile, claimed that the surgeon was unaware of the damage he had caused, and blamed his performance on poor oversight by hospital administration and poor training from his teachers.
In the end, the jury took only four hours to convict Duntsch, sentencing him to life in prison. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2045.