Ohio doctor acquitted on murder charges involving 14 patients prescribed opioids

A jury on Wednesday acquitted an Ohio doctor of murder charges in multiple hospital patient deaths following a weeks-long trial.

Dr. William Husel was accused of ordering excessive painkillers for 14 patients in the Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System. He was indicted in cases involving at least 500 micrograms of the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

Prosecutors said ordering such dosages for a nonsurgical situation indicated an intent to end lives. Husel had pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of murder, with his attorneys saying he was providing comfort care for dying patients, not trying to kill them.

Husel would have faced a sentence of life in prison with parole eligibility in 15 years had he been found guilty of just one count of murder.

Prosecutors presented their case against the doctor beginning Feb. 22 and put forward 53 prosecution witnesses before resting on March 29. Those witnesses included medical experts, Mount Carmel employees, investigators and family members of all 14 patients.

Dosage could ‘kill an elephant’: medical expert

The court heard in that testimony that Husel ordered up to 20 times as much fentanyl as was necessary to control pain.

Husel gave enough fentanyl to some patients to “kill an elephant,” testified Dr. Wes Ely, a physician and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Dr. William Husel, seen during a break in his trial on Feb. 22, had his medical licence suspended, with the hospital system where he was employed shelling out millions to 17 patients in a civil suit. (Fred Squillante/The Columbus Dispatch/AP)

One patient, 82-year-old Melissa Penix, was given 2,000 micrograms of fentanyl and died a few minutes later. Dr. John Schweig of Tampa Bay General Hospital testified for the prosecution that Penix “definitely was not terminal, nor was continuing medical care futile.”

“She was a fighter,” said Penix’s daughter, Bev Leonhard, of Grove City, according to The Columbus Dispatch. “She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”

Husel’s defence team called a single witness on March 30 — a Georgia anesthesiologist who testified that Husel’s patients died from their medical conditions and not Husel’s actions.

During closing arguments on April 11, David Zeyen, an assistant Franklin County prosecutor, told jurors that regardless of how close a patient is to death, it’s illegal to speed up the process.

Husel attorney Jose Baez said prosecutors hadn’t produced “a shred of evidence” to back up their claims.

Franklin Judge Michael Holbrook told the panel to make one more attempt to come up with a verdict in the case on Monday, after the jury reported to him that they were deadlocked.

Costly lawsuit, mass firings

Before deliberations began last week, the judge told jurors they could also consider lesser charges of attempted murder, and denied a last-minute motion to declare a mistrial. 

The age of the patients who died ranged from 37 to 82. The first patient death was in May 2015, while the last three died in November 2018.

Husel was fired by Mount Carmel Health System in December 2018, his medical licence suspended by state regulators a month later.

He was initially charged with 25 murder counts, but the judge agreed to dismiss 11 of those counts in January.

Husel’s colleagues who administered the medications weren’t criminally charged, but the hospital system said it fired 23 nurses, pharmacists and managers after its internal investigation and referred various employees to their respective state boards for possible disciplinary action.

Mount Carmel has reached settlements totalling more than $16.7 million US over the deaths of at least 17 patients, with more lawsuits pending.

The prosecution of a doctor for murder related to opioid prescriptions was not unprecedented, as the U.S. struggles with a years-long crisis of drug deaths. An Oklahoma doctor was found guilty of one count of second-degree murder last year, while a New York state doctor faces an upcoming trial after being charged last year in connection with five patient deaths.

Deaths attributable to overdoses and drug toxicity climbed to 93,000 during the first year of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, an all-time record. The total for 2021 is expected to reach or exceed that level, based on provisional data.

Synthetic versions of fentanyl found in the illicit drug supply, including in both opioids and stimulants, are seen as a driving cause of those numbers.

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