Fargo surgeon strikes plea deal on charges of sedating, raping woman last June
FARGO - A Fargo surgeon accused of sedating a woman with the anesthetic Propofol and raping her in his home last June pleaded guilty Tuesday to felony reckless endangerment and a misdemeanor count of sexual assault - the latter of which was first filed as a far more serious felony.
Dr. Jon Norberg, 41, entered Alford pleas in Cass County District Court. An Alford plea doesn't admit guilt but acknowledges a jury would likely convict based on the evidence.
Norberg told reporters afterward he was trying to help the woman, but "I probably went too far in trying to help her in that I brought home a medication that people don't think is a good idea to bring home.
"And when the Michael Jackson trial and everything came through, and you mention the word Propofol and people think Michael Jackson's dead," he added. The pop singer's 2009 death stemmed from Propofol intoxication.
"It's a good drug, it's a safe drug, but I didn't think that there would be any way to convince a jury of that. And therefore I was better off to take a plea than to risk the kneejerk response of jurors that this is a bad drug," he said.
The alleged victim - whom Norberg knows but who was not a patient - told police she believed Norberg drugged her without her knowledge to have sex with her, court records show.
Norberg was charged in August with gross sexual imposition - a Class AA felony that carried up to life in prison - and felony reckless endangerment. His plea agreement reduced the AA felony charge to a Class B misdemeanor, which upon conviction carries no more than a 30-day jail term. The Class C felony conviction for reckless endangerment carries a maximum prison term of five years.
Judge Douglas Herman accepted the pleas and ordered a pre-sentence investigation, expected to take two to three months.
Defense attorney John Goff said they reached a plea deal in part because the state was willing to reduce the rape charge.
"It was my advice to John to not put his freedom at risk by going forward with the gross sexual imposition in the event that there's always a risk that a jury can accept that," he said.
That Norberg was able to enter Alford pleas and not admit personal guilt also was a factor, Goff said.
"We wanted to get this whole thing cleared up so Jon can try to move on with his life, parent his children, support his children and try to get back to where he can practice medicine again," Goff said.
Prosecutors consulted the woman who had accused Norberg, and she approved of the plea agreement, Assistant State's Attorney Gary Euren said.
"There are a lot of factors going on with this case aside from the criminal matter, and we're taking everything into account and trying to do the best job we can for the society as a whole and for the victim in this case and believe that this was the best resolution at this point in time," Euren said.
Making sure the charges included a felony was a priority, Euren said, calling the allegations "egregious" and "something that should not happen, particularly with a doctor."
Without getting into details, Euren said the state's proposed sentencing recommendation "contemplates incarceration time."
Goff said the deal allows him to ask the judge for a sentence that may include no time in jail or prison and a disposition "that ultimately may make this case go away off Jon's record."
In an unusual request, Goff asked that if Norberg receives probation, the judge make it retroactive to Tuesday. The timing is important, he said, because Norberg hopes to apply for reinstatement of his medical license. Euren resisted the request, and Herman took it under advisement.
An investigative panel of the state Board of Medical Examiners has recommended that the board suspend Norberg's medical license indefinitely. Administrative Law Judge Allen Hoberg of Bismarck recently agreed with the panel's recommendation.
The board is set to meet on the matter Thursday. Norberg said he expects the board will indefinitely suspend his license.
In Hoberg's findings of fact, he noted that Norberg had medical privilege to administer moderate conscious sedation, but he didn't have the privilege or credentials to administer Propofol, which is used in deep unconscious sedation.
A Bismarck anesthesiologist testified to the panel that Norberg administered Propofol to the alleged victim in his home at least 32 times without proper monitoring and the necessary special equipment.
Norberg, who has been on voluntary leave from Sanford Health, posted $50,000 bail immediately after his first court appearance in August. Bail was later reduced to $5,000 and will remain at that amount until his sentencing.
Norberg and Goff both identified the alleged victim while speaking to reporters, but The Forum doesn't typically identify accusers in sexual assault cases.
Norberg's wife, who has filed for divorce, is currently living in their Rose Creek Parkway home where the alleged crimes occurred. Norberg is living in a rented home in Fargo, court records state.
Goff said he expects there to be an "extensive discussion of facts in the case" at the sentencing hearing.