Verdict reached in trial of dentist James Ryan
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Verdict reached in trial of dentist James Ryan

Jun 07, 2023

An oral surgeon who gave his girlfriend addictive anesthesia solutions and set up an at-home IV delivery system was convicted Friday of depraved-heart murder in her fatal overdose in Montgomery County, Md., last year.

James Ryan, 50, faces up to 55 years in prison for murder and other counts when he is sentenced at a later date for the death of Sarah Harris, 25.

Jurors saw and heard repeated evidence of his dangerous conduct over an eight-day trial that tracked her worsening addiction and health.

Harris was just 83 pounds when she was found dead inside Ryan’s Clarksburg home on Jan. 26, 2022. Autopsy results showed that she died of intoxication from ketamine, propofol and diazepam. Relatives who had been inside the house in her final months told jurors about finding drug vials, bloody towels, tubing and an IV pole next to Harris’s bed.

In laying out their case for depraved-heart second-degree murder, prosecutors did not have to assert that Ryan premeditatedly killed Harris. They instead argued that, as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon well-versed in anesthesia, he knew how dangerous the drugs were for Harris and showed “an extreme indifference” to her life by continually bringing her drugs and setting up the home delivery system.

“Dr. James Ryan — a well-trained oral surgeon, skilled in what he did, an expert in his field. He knew the risks of these drugs better than anyone,” Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Harrison told jurors. “And despite his vast knowledge and training in the field, he continuously provided these dangerous, deadly anesthetic drugs to Sarah Harris over a period of time even as he watched her deteriorate before his eyes.”

“Every time he gave her those drugs — whether he administered them or whether he instructed her on how to administer them to herself — a little bit of Sarah died,” Harrison added. “Until he gave them to her one too many times. And he killed her; he killed Sarah Harris. He created this risk.”

Earlier coverage: How both sides hoped to frame the trial

Ryan did not testify. His attorneys told jurors about Harris’s mental health struggles and argued she died of either suicide or an accidental overdose that she administered to herself.

Harris had asked Ryan for ketamine for “relief from her depression” and “dark, dark” months prior to her passing, defense attorney Thomas DeGonia told jurors. He noted that Harris’s brother had recently died.

“On January 25th [2022], the day before she is found [dead], Sarah Harris spends the day with her mother visiting cemeteries and burial plots where she was going to bury her brother,” DeGonia said in court.

Jurors began deliberating Friday and came back with a verdict the same day.

Ryan formerly ran Evolution Oral Surgery on the third floor of a medical office building in Germantown. He met Harris, a former beauty queen, in 2020 after she came to him for wisdom teeth work, according to prosecutors. He later hired her and they began dating.

In time, Ryan also offered to help her anxiety by giving her sedatives from his practice, prosecutors told jurors.

“In February of 2021, he told her, ‘Well, if you want, I can give you an IV injection. I can make the anxiety go away in a few seconds,’” Harrison said. “Sarah was a bit confused by this, but she took him up on it. And that started the cycle of Dr. Ryan offering to bring home drugs — ketamine, propofol, midazolam — from his practice to give to Sarah Harris to help her with this anxiety and help her sleep.”

As their relationship grew closer, according to testimony, Harris’s use of the surgery medicines increased. Jurors also learned about how propofol was linked to a celebrity death.

“It’s an anesthetic agent used to put patients to sleep, and it’s the same drug that Michael Jackson was using when he passed,” said witness Gary Warburton, chairman in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.

Prosecutors called him to draw out the stark contrast between the oral surgery care offered in medical settings and that absent from Harris’s use of the drugs at home — without safety equipment, surgical assistants or advanced medical monitoring devices.

Earlier coverage: Police said Ryan "fed" dangerous drugs to Harris

Under questioning from Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Dietrich, Warburton told jurors how oral surgeons always keep nearby a cart filled with safety equipment.

“Otherwise known as a crash cart,” Warburton told jurors. “If someone is having an adverse event under sedation, it contains everything from drugs to IV access to airway adjuncts, nasal tubes, even endotracheal tubes.”

Warburton said defibrillators should be on hand and spoke of other safety measures to provide safe sedation, such as monitoring a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels and breathing.

“When it came to Sarah Harris,” Harrison told jurors, Ryan “left her unmonitored. Oftentimes he would leave her and go to sleep for the night, leaving her hooked up to an IV on these dangerous medications.”