One of the largest murder cases in Ohio history, involving a doctor accused of killing 25 patients, will hinge on his colleagues’ cooperation and what they can offer up at trial, legal experts say.
And what those former co-workers reveal may help shed light on something that has so far eluded investigators: a motive.
A six-month review into William Husel, an intensive care doctor at Mount Carmel Health System in Columbus from 2015 to 2018, culminated Wednesday with his indictment. Franklin County prosecutors allege that Husel, 43, ordered excessive doses of opioids for those patients in intensive care, which either caused or hastened their deaths.
Many of those patients were in failing health and not alert when they came under Husel’s care, so “there would be no legitimate medical reason to administer” powerful painkillers, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said Wednesday.
Husel has previously asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to the State Medical Board of Ohio, and if he decides not to testify in the criminal case, many of the holes will have to be filled in by those nurses and in-house pharmacists who took his orders.
“Those pharmacists and nurses will give you a trail of his conduct,” said Michael Benza, a professor and senior instructor in law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “What prosecutors are going to need is for these other people to testify to show his connection, what his conduct was.”
In the fallout of an internal investigation, 30 employees, including nurses and pharmacists, were placed on leave, while 18 others with ties to the case no longer work there — with many of them having already left in prior years, hospital officials said.
O’Brien said Wednesday that he did not expect others to be criminally charged in the case, and that there was a clear chain of command in which the doctor “issues an order, a nurse takes medicine from a machine, and either that nurse or another administers” the drug on the doctor’s behalf.
Knowing the reason behind why someone committed a crime is helpful for juries to gain a fuller picture into what happened, but there’s no requirement for prosecutors to show a motive, said Steve Nolder, a defense attorney in Columbus.
A murder charge does require prosecutors to demonstrate the defendant’s actions were intentional — rising to a higher level than incompetence or medical negligence that isn’t necessarily criminal.
Nurses and pharmacists who can avoid prosecution would almost certainly be willing to talk, Benza said. While some may have failed to follow correct hospital or medical protocol by providing and administering the potentially fatal doses, Benza added, their actions also indicate that they were simply following a doctor’s orders — not knowingly taking part in a “purposeful killing.”
He likened their situation to how postal drivers might know there’s always a chance that some of the packages they’re delivering could contain narcotics.
“That doesn’t make them drug dealers,” Benza added.
Husel’s state of mind could also come into play at trial. But O’Brien on Wednesday made clear that he would not seek the death penalty against the disgraced doctor, which would require prosecutors to prove aggravated murder and that he preplanned the deaths and essentially worked out how he wanted to kill each patient.
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