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Experts say Weitzel’s patients did not die of overdoses

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FARMINGTON — A trio of Texans testified Friday on behalf of psychiatrist Robert Allen Weitzel, claiming he provided appropriate care for five patients who died under his supervision.

Joe Cannon Jr., a family practice physician and Weitzel's former colleague, testified in 2nd District Court he agreed with other defense witnesses who claimed the five patients died after suffering acute medical crises in the hospital and that Weitzel responded by providing good end-of-life care.

"In every case, the physicians, nurses and other medical people provided appropriate end-of-life care, honoring the (patients') advance directives," Cannon said.

Cannon testified Weitzel used morphine and other sedative medications appropriately, to comfort the patients in their final days. That "comfort care" was appropriate for the patients' medical conditions, he said.

Further, professor Robert Supernaw of Texas Tech University Pharmacy School claimed his calculations showed the morphine the patients were given — alone or in combination with other sedative medications — could not have caused their deaths.

Supernaw testified that his review of medical records showed the patients' times of death did not correspond with the "peak effect" of the sedative drugs. If the patients were killed by medication overdoses, Supernaw claimed they would die at the time the drugs were at their most potent states. He also held the drugs were not given in sufficient amounts to have a lethal effect, and the additive effect of drugs given in combination was minimal.

But Supernaw, under cross examination, conceded he could not give an opinion on what effect the drugs would have on the patients' pre-existing medical conditions, and that his calculations were made based on averages — the average time a drug could be expected to remain active in an average-age person.

C. Stratton Hill Jr. agreed with Supernaw's conclusions, however, testifying Friday afternoon the patients' medical records did not indicate morphine-related respiration depression that could have led to death.

"They did not die a morphine or opioid overdose death," Hill said, adding the amounts of morphine administered were "not lethal doses."

Hill defended Weitzel's use of the drug, stating the psychiatrist did the best he could given that the patients' dementia often prohibited them from articulating their conditions and concerns.

"Based upon the clinical picture presented to Dr. Weitzel, he responded in an appropriate and rational way," he said. "He (Weitzel) was flying by the seat of his pants. That's what he had to do."

Weitzel, 44, stands accused in connection with the deaths of five patients at the Davis Hospital and Medical Center's geriatric-psychiatric unit who died within a 16-day period in December 1995 and January 1996. The prosecution alleges Weitzel intentionally ordered nurses to administer lethal doses of morphine and other sedating drugs.

On Thursday, an impromptu press conference and some "egregiously prejudicial" comments made during the trial landed one prosecutor in the hot seat.

At issue are Assistant Attorney General Charlene Barlow's comments to the media prior to a hearing to determine whether trial judge Thomas Kay's game of catch with a juror June 16 constituted grounds for a mistrial. While still in the courtroom, Barlow provided information to four members of the media about in-chambers discussions regarding the incident and the mistrial hearing. She argued Thursday she believed she provided background information — not for publication — and was "dismayed" to see it in news reports the following day.


E-mal: jnii@desnews.com