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Jury finds Weitzel guilty of lesser counts in 5 deaths

The doctor was neglectful in his care, juror says

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FARMINGTON — Psychiatrist Robert Allen Weitzel shook his attorney's hand and nodded to friends before being led to jail in handcuffs, having been found guilty in connection with the deaths of five patients.

After deliberating for slightly more than five hours Monday evening, jurors found Weitzel guilty of second-degree felony manslaughter in the deaths of Judith Larsen, 93, and Mary Crane, 72. They found him guilty of criminal negligent homicide, class A misdemeanors, for causing the deaths of Ellen Anderson, 91; Lydia Smith, 90; and Ennis Alldredge, 83. Prosecutors alleged Weitzel caused the patients' deaths by ordering lethal doses of sedative medication, including morphine.

The victims were admitted to the Davis Hospital and Medical Center's geriatric-psychiatric unit after exhibiting disruptive behavior at other care facilities. All died within a 16-day period in December 1995 and January 1996.

After announcing their verdict about 10 p.m., two of the eight jurors declined to comment. A third, one of five male jurors, said only that he thought "justice was done."

Another juror, a woman from Layton who asked that her name not be used, said Tuesday morning she did not believe the morphine doses caused any of the patients' deaths but probably "hastened them."

The juror said she believed Weitzel was credible on the witness stand, but that he did not act appropriately in view of the condition of the patients under his care.

"These people were sick," she said. "I do believe (Weitzel) was giving them comfort care, but he should have been there more when the patients were becoming more ill, and that is where he was neglectful" with the three cases that resulted in negligent homicide.

Of the two that resulted in manslaughter convictions, the juror said she felt Weitzel administered too much morphine. The jury reviewed each patient's case before deciding on a verdict, the juror said, and they were in agreement on all counts.

Late Monday, Davis County Attorney Mel Wilson and prosecutor Steve Major said they were "pleasantly surprised" by the jurors' decision.

"The jury worked hard," Wilson said. "They understood the facts of this case and rendered a just verdict."

"It's a victory for us," Major said. "But I would have liked to have seen the class A misdemeanors be more on the line of manslaughter."

Still, Major said he was pleasantly surprised by the verdict, which was rendered 20 minutes after the jurors asked their only question of attorneys. The question sought to clarify a controversial jury instruction that mirrored American Medical Association guidelines stating, "A physician may ethically prescribe medication even if it may hasten death, or he knows it may likely cause death, if the purpose and intent of physician is to relieve pain and suffering."

By convicting Weitzel, jurors rejected lead defense attorney Peter Stirba's argument that the psychiatrist qualified for immunity under the state's Personal Choice and Living Will Act. The act provides immunity in criminal and civil proceedings for physicians who in good faith administer comfort care to terminally ill patients.

For each felony manslaughter conviction, Weitzel faces up to 15 years in prison. The negligent homicide convictions carry a penalty of up to one year in jail. Combined, that means Weitzel could be behind bars for up to 40 years.

Following the announcement of the verdict, 2nd District Judge Thomas Kay revoked the $25,000 cash bail Weitzel had posted prior to his preliminary hearing, ordering the psychiatrist be incarcerated until his sentencing Aug. 17.

"He engaged in a process of active euthanasia, a process not allowed by law in the state of Utah," Wilson said during the state's summation Monday morning. "Four of these patients were put to death by this defendant. This is not a comfort care case. This is not a medical directive case."

Weitzel testified he followed patients' wishes as outlined in their authorized medical directives, or the wishes expressed by family members. Stirba said his client provided appropriate, compassionate end-of-life care for his patients, who died after suffering acute medical crises in the hospital.

But Wilson said Weitzel was derelict in his care of patients and then covered up his crimes by controlling the information reported by nurses and passed on to family members.

"He abused his authority," he said. "He abused his position of trust with the patients and the families. He used them for his own purpose, which was to commit euthanasia."

Kent Smith, Lydia Smith's son, said he experienced firsthand the abuses Wilson described.

"I was listening to the advice of a doctor who we were paying to give us good information," he said. "I had no reason to suppose we were given bogus information. I didn't know all the medication being fed to my mother was killing her in the process. I had no way of knowing."

In a passionate two-hour closing statement, Stirba on Monday defended Weitzel's medical decisions and accused the prosecution of "spinning the facts" to suit their allegations.

"The state's own experts came in here, and we all know that hindsight is 20/20," Stirba said. "They came in here and picked apart every single decision Dr. Weitzel made. They want to point their fingers at this man and call him a murderer."

But, Stirba said, "there's reasonable doubt written all over this case. This case is not about murder. It's not about manslaughter. And it's not about criminal negligent homicide. This case is about one thing: It's about end-of-life care."

After the verdict was announced, Stirba said the case was "tough for everybody — the families and my client.

"Obviously, I think he's disappointed," Stirba said of Weitzel. "But I think he'll do fine at the appropriate time."

Ennis Alldredge's son Brad Alldredge said Monday he didn't see the compassionate care about which Stirba spoke.

"How do you see a glimmer of compassion when he (Weitzel) is up there lying about you?" Brad Alldredge asked.

Layton Police detective Joe Morrison agreed, saying Weitzel's testimony was disingenuous.

"I think Weitzel hung himself when he took the stand. When he said he saw Ellen Anderson at 5 p.m. — that's a lie."

Morrison led the investigation into the five deaths and concluded Weitzel "wanted the money, but he didn't want the job of being a doctor."

Stirba argued each of the patients suffered an acute medical crisis while in the hospital, and even the state's chief medical examiner couldn't determine a cause of death for four of the five patients. The fifth autopsy, that of 93-year-old Judith Larsen, was ruled a homicide by morphine intoxication only because medical examiner Todd Grey could not find a clear pathological reason for Larsen's death, Stirba said.

When asked about the jury's verdict, Morrison said, "He's going to prison, that's all I can tell you. . . . He's not going to walk."

Weitzel still faces 22 federal charges alleging he wrote fraudulent drug prescriptions, and his Utah medical license has been suspended pending further investigation by the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. Family members of Ennis Alldredge have also filed a civil lawsuit against Weitzel, and relatives of other victims say they are considering legal action against him.

Authorities in Bay City, Texas, are also investigating Weitzel in the December 1998 death of Laura Ware. Ware's family members in February told the Deseret News they believe Weitzel killed their mother by overdosing her with morphine.


Contributing: Derek Jensen, Hans Camporreales

E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com