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Weitzel jury will decide fate of more than one doctor

Deliberations begin Monday in psychiatrist’s murder trial

SHARE Weitzel jury will decide fate of more than one doctor

FARMINGTON — When the jury begins its deliberation Monday in the murder case of psychiatrist Robert Allen Weitzel, they likely will decide more than the fate of one Utah doctor.

Weitzel's precedent-setting case will require jurors to consider not only whether the state met its burden of proof with regard to the criminal charges but also whether state provisions apply that protect doctors from criminal and civil action if they comply "in good faith" with patients' directives.

It's a case that may have far-reaching impact on the way doctors treat patients with such directives, sources close to the case say, and is one of the first tried in the state of Utah.

"In all the felony cases — the rape cases, the drug cases I've had in the last two years — I've never seen anything like this," trial Judge Thomas Kay said Friday.

Weitzel, 44, stands accused in connection with the deaths of Ennis Alldredge, 83; Ellen Anderson, 91; Mary Crane, 72; Judith Larsen, 93; and Lydia Smith, 90. All died within a 16-day period in December 1995 and January 1996. All had medical directives, prohibiting life-prolonging measures in the event they suffered terminal medical conditions.

Prosecutors allege Weitzel caused the patients' decline with overdoses of sedative medications. Weitzel maintains he provided appropriate medical care and complied in good faith with the patients' directives to allow them a "dignified death, free of pain."

During the finalization of jury instructions Friday, defense attorney John Warren May argued the Utah Living Will and Personal Choice Act brings the issue of good faith to the forefront of Weitzel's case.

"This is a unique case, it really is," May said.

If the jury finds the state has failed to meet its burden of proof with regard to the first-degree felony murder charges — or lesser included offenses of second-degree felony manslaughter and class A misdemeanor negligent homicide — or that he acted in good faith with regard to the patients' directives, they must be instructed to acquit Weitzel, lead defense attorney Peter Stirba argued. And, if the jury finds Weitzel acted in good faith, the statute also would provide him immunity from all criminal and civil proceedings.

Weitzel also faces 22 federal charges alleging he kept medications prescribed for other patients, and a civil lawsuit filed by family members of Ennis Alldredge.

Prosecutor Steve Major argued evidence presented during Weitzel's trial showed several patient directives were only partially completed, and thus should be invalidated. Major asked Kay to rule on whether the directives were valid, saying even if the doctor presumed their validity it may not "get him off as a defense."

Rather, Major argued a "justification defense" merely would reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, not an acquittal.

But Kay ruled doctors should be able to trust patients' living wills.

"Right or wrong, I'm going to rule that there is a presumption of validity for doctors," he said. "They shouldn't have to second-guess it."

The case will be submitted to the jury Monday morning following closing arguments and jury instructions.

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com