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Lawyer: Convicted dentist not a threat

The attorney for a Costa Mesa dentist convicted of killing three people in his dentist chair more than 20 years ago expressed confidence Thursday that he can win his client’s freedom even after the governor rejected a parole bid earlier this month.

Attorney Rich Pfeiffer said that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to keep Tony Protopappas, 65, in Folsom State Prison flies in the face of a recent Court of Appeal opinion.

In a petition that Pfeiffer plans to file next week with the Santa Ana appellate court, he will remind the court that a three-judge panel there determined in March that Protopappas doesn’t pose a public threat.

“It is apparent the governor refuses to honor the opinion of this honorable court which discussed how Mr. Protopappas will never be a licensed dentist and therefore could not break the law in a similar fashion,” Pfeiffer wrote.


Protopappas was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder 26 years ago for killing three people in his dentist’s chair during the early 1980s. In each case he gave lethal doses of a general anesthetic, and ignored numerous warning signs that their lives were in jeopardy. He was sentenced to 15-years-to-life and has been in prison ever since.

After initially refusing parole for Protopappas in 2008, the state parole board granted him parole in July at the Court of Appeal’s behest.

Schwarzenegger appears to have used the same reasoning to keep Protopappas behind bars that state prosecutors used before the parole board and Court of Appeal issued their opinions in favor of parole for the ex-dentist. Prosecutors’ argument essentially is this: Protopappas hasn’t accepted full responsibility for his crimes, or fully understood their consequences, and, therefore, continues to be a danger to society.

“Protopappas’ lack of insight renders the life offenses still relevant to my determination that he continues to pose a current, unreasonable risk to public safety,” the governor wrote in a letter rejecting the parole bid.


How much water that argument will hold with the judges is unclear. The panel rejected that line of reasoning before.

“But the Attorney General does not explain how [Protopappas’] lack of insight renders him a current threat to public safety,” the panel wrote in its March 2010 opinion.

Pfeiffer added that Protopappas received a recent psychological evaluation, which reiterated his accepting responsibility for the murders and revealed his insight into the crimes.

Prison evaluations showed that Protopappas has an extremely low chance of being a repeat criminal, and records show that he hasn’t been disciplined in prison since 1987, Pfeiffer said.