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Propofol expert says mixing drug with sex put Fargo doctor's wife at risk

FARGO - A key witness in the trial linked to pop star Michael Jackson's death testified here Wednesday that a Fargo surgeon accused of giving his wife the powerful sedative propofol and sexually assaulting her didn't meet the minimum standards for administering the drug.

"The monitoring, the vigilance and the ability to resuscitate were all well below the standard of care," said Dr. Steven Shafer, the first witness called in the trial of Jon Norberg.

In opening statements, prosecutor Reid Brady told jurors that Norberg, an orthopedic hand surgeon, "defied dangerous risks" by giving his wife propofol in their home without proper safety or monitoring equipment.

Norberg "was so obsessed with sex, that after doing so, he perpetrated sex acts upon her while she was unaware," said Brady, an assistant Cass County state's attorney.

The defense contended that Norberg's wife, Alonna Norberg, also a physician, schemed to frame her husband - who earlier indicated that he wanted a divorce but then agreed to try to work things out - because she wanted custody of their children and knew she wouldn't get it due to her psychiatric issues and dependency on prescription drugs.

"By turning the tables on him, she could find a way to make Jon Norberg look worse than she looks," attorney Robert Hoy said.

Hoy called Alonna Norberg an "incredibly intelligent" woman who is an expert on sexual assault, having advocated for sexually abused children and testified in sexual abuse cases in the past. She's also familiar with how evidence is gathered in sexual assault cases, which is important because of what jurors didn't hear in the state's opening, Hoy said.

"There is absolutely no physical evidence of any kind - of any kind - of a sexual assault," he said.

Brady said Alonna Norberg awoke on the night of June 16-17 last year to her husband sexually assaulting her, adding that she was awake for "just a brief period and went back out unconscious." The next morning, she found a bottle of propofol and physical evidence on her body that she'd been sexually assaulted, he said.

Hoy jumped on the fact that Alonna Norberg didn't report the alleged sexual assaults, which occurred on June 16-17 and June 19-20, to Fargo police until July 5.

"Not only did she not collect any, she didn't tell law enforcement in time so they could collect any evidence," Hoy said.

Police serving search warrants at the Norbergs' south Fargo home found two 20-bottle cases of propofol in a gun safe, one unopened and the other with four bottles left in it, Brady said. Another safe in Jon Norberg's bedroom contained sevoflurane, an ether-like drug that he's alleged to have used in the July 19-20 assault.

A key issue in the trial is whether Alonna Norberg gave her husband permission to administer propofol to her. Hoy said the couple made a joint decision to try propofol to treat her chronic pain condition. Brady said Jon Norberg first suggested in 2010 that they try Diprivan, the brand name for propofol, but that Alonna Norberg decided to stop using it when she found out it was propofol.

Alonna Norberg went on medical disability in 2008 and hasn't practiced medicine since then, Brady said.

Jon Norberg faces up to life in prison if convicted of the Class AA felony charge of gross sexual imposition. He's also charged with Class C felony reckless endangerment, punishable by up to five years, for allegedly putting his wife's life at risk by using the drugs on her in a non-hospital setting and without proper personnel and safety equipment.

Assistant State's Attorney Gary Euren elicited testimony from Shafer, the propofol expert, to try to make the case for both charges.

Shafer, a professor of anesthesia at Stanford University, said Norberg showed a "lack of vigilance" when, according to his own affidavit on July 19, 2011, he had sex with his wife while she was sedated with propofol.

"And I do not understand how one can be vigilant as a physician looking after a patient while at the same time engaging in sexual intercourse," he said.

Shafer testified that Norberg didn't have the proper expertise, equipment or medication available in case something went wrong, didn't document the sedation process and didn't have his wife sign an informed medical consent document.

When asked if he could state with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the situation of Alonna Norberg's unconsciousness without proper personnel and safety equipment present created a substantial risk of bodily injury or death, Shafer answered, "Yes."

Based on statements made by Jon Norberg about how he administered propofol to his wife, Shafer said, it appears she experienced short intervals of low-level awareness between periods of unconsciousness, which would be consistent with moderate sedation and the up-and-down dosing method used.

The expert testimony could prove crucial because, as Hoy noted in opening, Alonna Norberg initially told police her recollection of the June 16-17 assault was like a "clip in time" she couldn't establish as memory or dream.

Shafer testified at length about his credentials, but his role as a star witness in the trial of Jackson's convicted doctor, Conrad Murray, wasn't among them. Judge Douglas Herman had earlier ruled that attorneys can't mention Murray's trial or other high-profile cases involving propofol, which gained notoriety after Jackson's death.

Dressed in a black suit, Jon Norberg steadily took notes during Shafer's testimony. Norberg's parents and other family members sat a few rows behind him, as they have since jury selection began Monday.

The trial is expected to last at least two weeks and possibly until Thanksgiving.

The prospect of a mistrial was raised when Herman, prior to opening statements, addressed a defense challenge that alleges gender discrimination by the prosecution in the jury selection process.

Prosecutors used all 11 of their peremptory challenges to strike men from the panel of 36 potential jurors. The final jury has five men, seven women and two female alternate jurors.

Shortly after the jury was seated Tuesday afternoon, Hoy made a Batson challenge, an objection to the validity of a peremptory challenge on grounds that it was used to exclude a potential juror based on race, ethnicity, or gender.

If Herman agrees with the challenge, he could declare a mistrial, which would require another jury to be seated. He's expected to address the issue in a hearing this week, possibly today.

Though The Forum does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assaults, Alonna Norberg consented to be named to contest her husband's claims that she gave him permission to use propofol on her and that he never sexually abused her.