Abingdon is the legal and artistic center of southwest Virginia, and by 2007 it begins to be known for upscale boutiques and farm-to-table restaurants. On July 20, 2007, the relatives of opioid victims gather in Abingdon to see the Purdue executives sentenced.
The fancy shops and restaurants suggest that Abingdon isn’t quite like some of the more rural places where the opioid epidemic took hold (although it is located near them in southwest Virginia and by 2007, the epidemic would have reached cities and suburbs).
Van Zee can’t make the sentencing, but he sends detailed notes to Sister Beth. Van Rooyan will also be there, as will Ed Bisch and Lee Nuss. They bring protest signs and memorials for their lost loved ones. The Purdue executives fly in from Connecticut on a private jet.
Macy once again contrasts the situations between the activists and the pharmaceutical executives. Van Zee isn’t even able to make the sentencing, but the Purdue executives have private jets that take them there directly, emphasizing how much easier they have it.
Paul Goldenheim (Purdue’s medical director), Michael Friedman (the CEO), and Udell seem stunned to see the families of the OxyContin victims there. Purdue’s lawyers try to argue that the stigma of a criminal conviction is punishment enough for the men.
Many families of opioid victims feel that it is important for Purdue executives to see them, perhaps because they feel it will help them see the consequences of their actions. The surprise that Goldenheim, Friedman, and Udell exhibit upon seeing the families suggests that perhaps they haven’t had to directly face the consequences of their actions very often.
The Sackler family themselves are notably absent from the courtroom proceedings. In 2015, the Sacklers will be listed on Forbes’ “America’s Richest Families” list, with a net worth of 14 billion.
The fact that the Sacklers are still worth $14 billion in 2015, shows that, while the court case had some positive outcomes for anti-opioid activists, it had very little negative effect on the Sacklers.
At the courthouse, many relatives of opioid victims argue that the Purdue executives deserve jail time and that even the multi-million-dollar settlement pales in comparison to the damage Purdue has done to families. The activists are also disappointed to learn that Purdue Frederick is being banned from participating in federal insurance programs instead of Purdue Pharma. (Purdue Frederick is a holding company, which basically acts as a shell company to plead guilty instead of the actual company.)
Shell corporations are companies that generally don’t have employees and only exist on paper; they can sometimes be used for illegal purposes, like tax evasion, although they can also be used to exploit loopholes in the law. The fact that Purdue Frederick is being penalized instead of Purdue Pharma suggests that, despite Purdue’s loss in the courtroom, the company still has ways to protect itself.
The judge in Abingdon is also frustrated by the lack of jail time, but his hands are tied by the plea agreement that Purdue made with prosecutors. The former Purdue people (Goldenheim, Friedman, and Udell) serve out their probation, with Udell dying of a stroke in 2013. Udell’s son remains resentful of the measures taken against his father.
Macy depicts how the court system can lead to contradictions. On the one hand, the plea agreement was a win for activists, but it also removed the possibility of jail time for Purdue executives. Macy shows how anti-opioid activism often involved taking imperfect compromises like this in order to achieve progress.
The sentencing in Abingdon ends up being one of the most dramatic ones the region has ever seen. Nuss, who brings her son’s urn with her into the courtroom, is still disappointed that the Purdue executives don’t apologize or truly admit to what they did.
The image of Nuss’s son’s urn emphasizes that even a total victory in court would not have been enough to undo the damage that OxyContin has done, particularly all the lives that it has already claimed.