LAS VEGAS (AP) - Jury selection began Monday in a long-delayed criminal trial of a former Las Vegas endoscopy clinic owner and an employee accused of infecting seven patients with hepatitis C during outpatient procedures in 2007, including one man who later died.
But while proceedings began in Clark County District Court, lawyers for former Dr. Dipak Desai also made a last-ditch pitch for the Nevada Supreme Court to halt trial because they say the 63-year-old is so incapacitated by strokes he can't assist in his defense.
"The district court abused its discretion in refusing to suspend trial and initiate competency proceedings," defense attorney Richard Wright argued in his four-page plea for a delay.
"The trial of an accused who is incompetent violates fundamental principles of due process."
Desai sat at a defense table next to Wright and co-counsel Margaret Stanish on Monday, staring straight ahead as the first 30 prospective jurors were sworn in for jury selection questions. They were among 500 prospective jurors to fill out 16-page questionnaires ahead of time.
Co-defendant Ronald Ernest Lakeman, 65, sat with his attorney, Frederick Santacroce, at a second table.
Lakeman was a nurse-anesthetist at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, where prosecutors allege Desai pinched pennies so much that incurable liver disease was spread from patient to patient through the reuse of opened vials of anesthetic, colonoscopy scopes and bite plates.
Desai and Lakeman each have pleaded not guilty to 28 charges, including criminal neglect of patients, reckless disregard of persons, theft, obtaining money under false pretenses, insurance fraud and murder - a charge added after an infected former patient, Rodolfo Meana, died in the Philippines in 2012.
Desai and Lakeman could spend the rest of their lives in prison if they are convicted.
Jurors were questioned under oath about what they know about the 2007-2008 community hepatitis outbreak in Las Vegas, whether they know more than 175 people involved in the case, and whether their home and work can bear the time commitment.
Jury selection is expected to take up to two weeks, followed by five or six weeks of trial.
Wright noted for that the criminal case is separate from civil lawsuits that yielded jury findings holding drug manufacturers and the state's largest health management organization liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs.
The hepatitis outbreak became public when health officials in February 2008 notified more than 50,000 patients at two Desai clinics to be tested for hepatitis and HIV.
Investigators later determined that nine people contracted incurable hepatitis C at the two clinics, and that hepatitis C infections of another 105 patients may have been related.
Wright said Desai suffered his first strokes in 2007, and that the former prominent Las Vegas gastroenterologist and state medical board member now can't recall simple facts necessary for his defense, can't follow court proceedings, and won't be able to sufficiently testify on his own behalf.
Wright told Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair that Desai suffered another stroke in February - months after doctors at the state-run Lakes Crossing mental health hospital in Sparks deemed him competent for trial.
Prosecutors Michael Staudaher and Pamela Weckerly accuse Desai of "malingering" and exaggerating symptoms of his illness to avoid trial.
Adair last week denied another request by Wright for another competency hearing, and vowed not to postpone trial any longer.