Longform

Dr. Deception: Joseph Franzetti Dispenses $300 Psych Evaluations Like They’re Flu Shots, but the Reports Are Useless

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About 2:30 on the afternoon of May 14, Franzetti noted in Cervantes' medical chart that he had visited his patient that morning and that his condition was improving:

"No homicidality. No suicidality. No delusions . . . Should do well in general population. Inmate out to court."

But here's the rub: Just minutes before the doctor scribbled that positive entry into the file, sheriff's deputies found Steven Cervantes' in a holding cell at the downtown Superior Court complex, across the street from the jail.

The father of four had hanged himself with a makeshift noose he fashioned out of his socks and tied to the cell bars.

But Franzetti didn't mention that his entry was late. He wrote it as if it were contemporaneous.

It wasn't.

Based on jail documents and Franzetti's conflicting statements in various legal forums, the odds that he ever saw Steve Cervantes that morning are negligible.

The doctor probably had spoken with Cervantes only once during the nine days of Cervantes' incarceration and had little basis with which to have written the upbeat notation.

Franzetti later swore under oath not to have learned about Cervantes' suicide until weeks later.

That remarkable claim came despite publicity about the suicide and the fact that it was the talk of the courthouse and the mental-health community. (It apparently was the first Superior Court suicide ever.)

Steven Cervantes' girlfriend and mother of two of his children later sued Joseph Franzetti and Maricopa County.

The federal case settled in February 2007 for $675,000, in part because of a devastating January 2006 deposition by Dr. Steven Pitt, who was hired by the plaintiff to render his opinion of Dr. Franzetti's work.

Pitt, a psychiatrist based in Scottsdale, told Franzetti's attorney that Steven Cervantes had been "crying out for help and the voice wasn't heard."

The defense attorney asked for other "crying out" examples.

"How about hanging yourself in a fricking police car, pardon my language, on the way to jail?" Pitt quickly replied, in reference to an incident nine days before the suicide, when Cervantes had tried to hang himself with a makeshift noose in a Phoenix police cruiser.

As for Franzetti's treatment of the late inmate, Pitt said, "I wouldn't even expect to see a first-year medical student do that kind of evaluation. That's how poor it was . . . It's an embarrassingly low effort that he put into trying to treat and understand this man. It's just bad work. Very bad."

In June 2006, six months after Pitt's deposition, the Arizona Medical Board convened to consider Dr. Franzetti's work in the Steven Cervantes case.

The board took on the case in response to the 2005 New Times article about the doctor.

Earlier, staffers for the board found Franzetti had caused "actual harm" to Cervantes and recommended a letter of reprimand.

But at a June 7 hearing, Franzetti denied any wrongdoing and spun a radically different story about the events of May 2002.

The doctor previously insisted he had spent time with Cervantes on the morning of the suicide.

Now, he swore he had spoken to Cervantes the day before the suicide and that it was an accident that he "documented [the meeting] and failed to say it was a late entry on the 14th when I had a chance to regroup and chart."

Franzetti conceded under questioning by board member Dr. Patrick Connell that the Cervantes file was the only one he had updated from the previous day.

Connell, an emergency room physician, asked Franzetti whether it was strange "that you suddenly had the urge to complete a record of a visit that occurred the day before [and] ends up being somewhat self-serving?"

"I don't find that strange at all," the shrink replied.

Connell wondered aloud whether Franzetti's superiors had come to him immediately after the suicide "and said, 'You'd better get a note on the chart.'"

Orthopedic surgeon William Martin III was equally direct, telling the doctor, "I find your testimony not credible . . . You've given me nothing other than your word that [the chart entry] happened at that time, which is frankly not good enough for me."

Another doctor, radiologist Tim Hunter, chimed in, "I've got a feeling that this patient was kind of left in the lurch."

The board first voted 12-0 to find Franzetti guilty of unprofessional conduct for his "poor record-keeping." To at least some of the panelists, that was akin to convicting a murderer for littering.

Dr. Connell moved for a finding that Franzetti's conduct had been "dangerous to the health of the patient or the public."

But Sharon Megdal, a civilian board member from Tucson, said she did not believe that Joe Franzetti was lying about his late entry in the inmate's medical file. Neither did Dona Pardo, a board member and registered nurse.

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