MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Elvis Presley's doctor goes on trial Wednesday.
Dr. George C. Nichopoulos is accused of overprescribing thousands of pills to the late entertainer and others. It's a trial that may shed light on the superstar's death four years ago.
The question of whether Presley died of drug-related causes has not been put to rest despite Shelby County Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco's ruling that Presley succumbed to heart disease.
Attorneys expect the trial to last up to eight weeks. Because of telephone and letter threats to Nichopoulos earlier this year, security is expected to be tight.
A Shelby County grand jury indicted Nichopoulos on 14 counts of overprescribing uppers, downers and painkillers to Presley, entertainer Jerry Lee Lewis, himself and eight others.
The two counts of the indictment dealing with Presley allege Nichopoulos 'unlawfully, wilfully and feloniously' prescribed for the entertainer 'certain quantities' of the synthetic narcotic, Dilaudid; the painkillers Percodan and Demerol; the sedatives Quaalude and Parest; the barbiturate Amytal; the stimulants Dexedrine and Biphetamine; and the appetite suppressant Ionamine from May 17, 1976, to Aug. 16, 1977 - the day Presley died at the age of 42.
The indictment goes on to claim Nichopoulos dispensed the drugs 'with knowledge that ... Elvis Presley was addicted to the habit of using the said controlled substances without making a bona fide effort to cure the habit...'
Each of the 14 counts Nichopoulos faces carries a maximum penalty of a 10-year prison term and a $20,000 fine.
The criminal charges came four months after the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found the physician guilty on similar allegations.
In January 1980, the board prohibited Nichopoulos from practicing medicine for three months and placed him on probation for three years. At the same time, the board cleared the white-haired doctor on charges of malpractice and unethical conduct.
Presley died the day after he received the largest single batch of stimulants, depressants and painkillers Nichopoulos allegedly prescribed for him during the 20 months before his death.
Suspicions were further agitated by a secret autopsy report in the hands of Baptist Hospital. ABC-TV, in its investigations into the singer's death, tried to pry the report open, but a court ruled in favor of the hospital.
The grand jury, however, had an opportunity to scrutinize the autopsy report. In addition, the grand jury was presented the results of an audit of all 124 pharmacies in Shelby County and a review of six million prescriptions written by Nichopoulos, according to prosecutors.
Not more than a week after Presley's body was found on his bathroom floor at Graceland mansion, reports began to emerge that tests on blood and tissue samples showed the presence of eight different drugs.
Nichopoulos admitted before the medical board that Presley was hospitalized twice for drug detoxification and may have been addicted to Demerol, a painkiller.
Nichopoulos also maintained he tried unsuccessfully to treat the singer's psychological craving for drugs.
In testimony before the board, a picture of Presley's unorthodox lifestyle came into focus -- his receiving mysterious drug shipments from Las Vegas, visiting the dentist at midnight and playing racquetball in the wee hours of the morning.
Nichopoulos' attorney, former Watergate prosecutor James Neal, attempted to have the charges dropped on grounds the law governing the issue of overprescribing was unconstitutionally vague.
However, Criminal Court Judge Bernie Weinman, who will preside over the upcoming trial, rejected the argument.
Weinman also turned down motions by Nichopoulos' former defense attorneys who claimed the doctor was facing double jeopardy since he underwent a quasi-judicial hearing before the board of medical examiners.
Defense attorneys also charged prosecutors were practicing 'selective prosecution' because Nichopoulos' patient was the world-renowned Presley.
'No physician ever brought before a licensing board has been subsequently selected for civil prosecution,' attorney John Thomason argued.
When Thomason and three other attorneys withdrew from the case, whispers circulated that they were frustrated with Nichopoulos for his rejection of an offer to plead guilty to a lesser charge. The defense attorneys said the speculation was unfounded.
The plea offer reportedly emanated from District Attorney Hugh Stanton's office.