FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota surgeon was acquitted Wednesday of raping his wife while she was passed out from a powerful anesthetic he gave her, ending a nearly three-week trial in which the couple's messy divorce was picked apart in court.
Dr. Jon Norberg, whose medical license was suspended after it became known he had been administering propofol to his now-estranged wife, Dr. Alonna Norberg, lowered his head slightly and exhaled when the verdict was read. His brother Doug Norberg, a lawyer who assisted the defense, broke down crying in the Fargo courtroom.
Norberg could have faced up to life in prison if convicted of gross sexual imposition. He was also charged with reckless endangerment. The jury deliberated for about four hours before rendering its verdict.
"It has been surreal. It's been surreal the whole time," Jon Norberg said after the hearing.
Norberg didn't testify during the trial, but he has publicly maintained that he gave his wife propofol, the anesthetic that pop star Michael Jackson fatally overdosed on in 2009, over an 18-month period to treat her chronic pain condition and help her sleep. She denies that she agreed to take the medication.
Defense attorney Robert Hoy said he was confident his client was innocent, and that made him easy to defend.
"This has been a long 18 months for Jon Norberg. It has been a long three weeks for this jury," Hoy said.
Prosecutor Gary Euren said he believed it was a strong case and said he wouldn't do anything differently.
"It was a difficult case," Euren said. "Obviously from the beginning it was basically a 'he said, she said' case, and those are very difficult, especially with juries."
The Associated Press typically doesn't identify the alleged victims in sexual assault cases, but Alonna Norberg has spoken out publicly several times about the case.
Alonna Norberg, who is a pediatrician, only attended the nine-day trial when she had to testify, but several of her family members were regulars. None of them were on hand Wednesday to hear the verdict.
Euren, when asked what's next for Alonna Norberg, said he didn't know and hadn't had the chance to speak with her.
Alonna Norberg testified that her husband injected her with propofol on the night of June 16, 2011, and that she passed out. She said she awoke to him forcing her to perform oral sex. Defense attorneys said Alonna Norberg was alert the whole time and the sex was consensual.
Jon Norberg's attorneys argued that the rape claims were bogus and that Alonna Norberg cooked them up to help her in her looming divorce and child custody case. They said she feared she wouldn't get custody of the children because of an alleged prescription drug addiction and mental health issues.
Jon Norberg's attorneys said he administered the propofol to his wife only after researching it thoroughly and discussing it with her. She says he called it by its brand name, Diprivan, and that she wouldn't have taken it if she had known it was propofol.
Dr. Steven Shafer, a professor of anesthesia at Stanford University who was the key witness in the case against Jackson's doctor, also testified in the Norberg trial. He told jurors that Jon Norberg wasn't qualified to administer propofol and had put his wife's life at risk.
Norberg said he expects the verdict to have an impact on the divorce and custody issues.
"My intention is to spend time with my family and we'll work it out so it's fair so she will get to spend time with them as well," he said.
The state Board of Medical Examiners has indefinitely suspended Jon Norberg's license. Prosecutors said Alonna Norberg did not want to see her husband criminally prosecuted or lose his ability to practice medicine, but she wanted him to stop giving her propofol.
Jon Norberg said he planned to ask the medical board about the next step in getting reinstated.