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Murder Charges Against California Rehab Center Dismissed

MURRIETA, Calif. (CBS NEWS)-- A California judge dismissed a murder charge Friday filed against a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center where a man died after seeking help to treat a drinking problem.

The case was the first time a California corporation was accused of murder, the facility's attorneys said.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Elaine Kiefer ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the second-degree murder charge against A Better Tomorrow and four of its employees in the 2010 death of patient Gary Benefield.

In her ruling, Kiefer wrote the workers gave Benefield drugs with the intention of easing his discomfort, not causing any harm.

"There is no evidence that any of the defendants knew that their acts of giving medications to Benefield were dangerous to the extent that they risked killing him, and so no evidence that they consciously disregarded that risk to Benefield's life," Kiefer wrote.

Benefield collapsed by his bed and died shortly after arriving at A Better Tomorrow in Murrieta. His body was found in the morning.

Experts testified the drugs Benefield was given would not cause death on their own. But a physician who took the stand for the prosecution said that while drug toxicity was not a primary issue in his cause of death, it could have been a factor.

Legal experts have said the murder charge could be hard to prosecute but might have been intended to put California's drug and rehabilitation industry on alert.

An attorney for the prosecution did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.

Brian Hennigan, an attorney representing one of the employee defendants, said the dismissal brought a "great feeling of relief."

"We got a fair hearing, had a chance to present our evidence, and the court reached the right conclusion," Hennigan said.

Benefield had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia and was connected to an oxygen tank when he arrived at A Better Tomorrow.

Prosecutors argued the company killed Benefield by allowing employees with little or no medical training to give him drugs without consulting a physician or getting a prescription. They said the drugs made it harder for Benefield to breathe.

Though the judge dismissed the murder charge, she upheld an additional charge of dependent adult abuse for all but one of the defendants.

Kiefer ruled there was sufficient evidence for a grand jury to find seven of the eight defendants willfully caused or permitted Benefield's health to be endangered while he was at the treatment facility. Evidence presented to the grand jury showed detox medications that went unused or were leftover by other patients were then given to new clients.

The medications were intended to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

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