Former neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch is one of the most infamous doctors ever brought to trial in a criminal case, and with good reason. Over the span of a few years, he managed to maim and injure over 30 patients, with two more dying during and shortly after undergoing surgery with him. Despite his colleagues being well aware of his appalling crimes against his helpless patients, the task of bringing him to justice was daunting and repeatedly sidelined until a relatively young attorney named Michelle Shughart stepped in and led the charge. From her well-known “sugary” courtroom demeanor, which is also evident in the medical true-crime series ‘Dr. Death’ that follows Duntsch’s sinister story, you’d be surprised at the kinds of heinous cases she’s handled. Curious? Let’s get to know Michelle Shughart a little better.
Who is Michelle Shughart?
Michelle Lee Shughart was an assistant district attorney in Texas when she first got involved in the Christopher Duntsch investigation. The University of Florida graduate, who then attended the Dedman School of Law at the Southern Methodist University, was intrigued by the case and continued to dig into it until her boss (who already had a lot on her plate) handed the case over to her. What Shughart now found herself grappling with was a case of unprecedented complexity not just because of Duntsch’s apparently clean record — despite his appalling patient history — but also the fact that it required sufficient knowledge of neurosurgery, something that is not too easy to come by.
Fortunately, the doctors who were already investigating the rogue surgeon’s misdeeds, as well as experts brought on to help with the case, explained the required intricacies of neurosurgery to her — things like what a normal complication in a procedure is as opposed to something that counts as gross oversight or malicious intent. The then-assistant district attorney prosecuted Duntsch in 2017, by which time she had sufficient proof and knowledge in the field to help convict him to life in prison.
In the initial days as well as during the trial, Drs. Robert Henderson, Randall Kirby, and Martin Lazar were of particular help in tying together testimonies and medical expertise to help portray the gravity of the rogue surgeon’s crimes, who had one of his patients bleed to death after coming in for a relatively straightforward procedure.
Then there were the added complications of the charges to be brought forward. Determined not to let Duntsch hurt any more people, the prosecution team under Shughart considered charging him with aggravated assault, which would result in a 2nd-degree felony charge. The fact that one of his injured patients, Mary Efurd, was above the age of 65 allowed them to pursue charges of injury to an elderly person, which opened the possibility of a 1st-degree felony charge. Shughart also (successfully) grappled with the task of proving that Duntsch’s mental state was sound and that he was cognizant of the fact that he was hurting his patients by operating on them.
In the end, Christopher Duntsch became the first physician to be imprisoned for actions towards a patient; a daunting verdict made all the more impactful by it being a life sentence. Shughart also commented that the earning potential of neurosurgeons and hence, the financial incentives to the surgeon and the institutions that hired him, played a significant role in propagating a doctor who was so recklessly harming his patients.
Where is Michelle Shughart Now?
Michelle is currently a District Attorney in Dallas County and continues fighting cases to serve justice. Her offices are located at 133 North Riverfront Boulevard. She also teaches courses in dispute resolution and has been a private consultant for teaching hospitals and doctors interpersonal skills. She attended the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021, where she met with actress AnnaSophia Robb who essays her on the series ‘Dr. Death.’ The latter was genuinely surprised by the attorney’s highly affable attitude, given the serious nature of her work. Shughart, whilst describing herself, said that she could be nice to someone and still put them in prison, which possibly best describes the prolific attorney who made history and brought the dangerous surgeon to justice.
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