March 15, 2010

Shooting casts physician in new role

TREVOR MAXWELL

— By

Staff Writer

For more than two decades, Dr. Owen Pickus has been in the public spotlight for his work with AIDS and cancer patients in Maine, and his advocacy on their behalf.

His philanthropic interests also are well documented. The first phase of the Pickus Center for Biomedical Research, funded in part by a $1 million donation from Pickus and his wife, Dr. Geraldine Ollila-Pickus, will open this fall for students at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The doctor is in the spotlight again this week, but under vastly different circumstances. Pickus, who earned his law degree last year, is representing the family of Michael S. Norton, who was shot to death by South Portland police Monday morning.

Norton, 29, was killed after a three-hour standoff at his Main Street home. Norton walked out of the house around 2 a.m., apparently carrying a knife. His parents had called police both Saturday and Sunday, saying he was suicidal, and he had spent Saturday night in a local hospital before checking himself out.

The shooting is under investigation by the Maine Attorney General's Office. A separate review is being done by the South Portland Police Department.

Circumstance, as well as his unique skill set, put Pickus in a position to step forward as the Norton family lawyer.

About three years ago, Pickus hired Michael Norton as chief financial officer at Maine Centers for Healthcare. Pickus was Norton's boss and friend, and was described by family members as a mentor.

Although Pickus only recently began practicing law, he has knowledge of the process involved in a police shooting investigation. He also made a phone call early this week to colleague Mark Randall, a Portland lawyer who has experience with similar incidents. Randall agreed to serve as co-counsel, and Pickus also is consulting with his own law partner, Elliott Epstein.

Since the shooting, Pickus has sought out and interviewed eyewitnesses; has been with relatives as detectives interviewed them; and has protected their privacy as they grieve and plan a funeral service for Saturday.

''You need to have an advocate for the victim and the victim's family,'' Pickus said Thursday. ''One wants to be certain that evidence is preserved, that testimony is preserved, that the investigation itself is done objectively and not as a whitewash.''

Based on preliminary information, Pickus questions the use of deadly force against Norton, as well as the decision by doctors to let Norton check himself out of the hospital Sunday. He hopes the probe by the Attorney General's Office will be thorough, without being prolonged.

''It is too premature to talk about civil action,'' Pickus said. ''We don't have any idea for certain what is going to happen.''

Pickus said his status as Norton's employer and a family friend does not present conflicts of interest. If any should arise, Pickus said, he would step aside. He also said he was not one of Norton's health care providers.

Pickus began his medical practice in Portland in 1979 and is board-certified in internal medicine, hematology and oncology. Along with Dr. Michael Bach, Pickus earned a reputation in the 1980s as a specialist and advocate for AIDS patients. The Portland Press Herald named Pickus physician of the decade.

Pickus enrolled at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland in 2004 because he wanted to expand his role as an advocate. He now sees patients three days a week and practices law two days a week at an office on Forest Avenue. Pickus is active at UNE's College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he is a professor and a trustee.

''He was very high-energy, a very good student,'' said Peter Pitegoff, dean of the law school.

''He has never shied from the spotlight. He is also experienced in stepping into controversy and dealing with complex situations.''

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

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