Embattled psychiatrist Robert Allen Weitzel needs to raise $23,000 by the end of next week and he's counting on the generosity of Utah physicians to help him meet his goal.
Time is ticking for the doctor, who faces a March 22 court-imposed deadline to hire a private attorney to defend him against allegations he overmedicated five elderly patients under his care. If Weitzel is unable to retain an attorney, 2nd District Judge Thomas L. Kay said he will appoint a public defender.
But Weitzel told reporters at a Monday news conference he didn't believe a public defender could adequately defend the complicated and time-consuming case, which is quickly approaching its second jury trial.
Weitzel lost his original defense attorney last month when Peter Stirba withdrew from the case to attend to his wife, 3rd District Judge Anne Stirba, who is battling a long-term illness.
Weitzel last week mailed a six-page letter to more than 4,400 doctors and established a Web site to solicit contributions to his legal defense fund. The letter details Weitzel's involvement in each of the patient's cases and appeals to doctors who may find themselves in similar situations.
The doctor maintains he provided adequate end-of-life care to his elderly patients. He has made the patients' medical records available on his Internet site in hopes that doctors will review the material and support his decisions.
"The care was perfectly normal," Weitzel said. "If physicians know that they will support me."
Davis County Attorney Mel Wilson is critical of Weitzel's latest fund-raising drive.
"I think what he's trying to do is try his case to the media and the doctors," Wilson said. "I found offensive the fact that he invaded the privacy of these patients by publishing their medical records on the Web site."
Weitzel maintains that Wilson made the records a matter of public record when he used them as evidence at the first trial.
"That's ludicrous," Wilson said. "I didn't publish them on the Internet. I used them to try a criminal case."
Weitzel was originally charged with five counts of first-degree felony murder in connection with the deaths of the five patients, who died within a 16-day period in December 1995 and January 1996 at the Davis Hospital and Medical Center's geriatric-psychiatric unit. Following a six-week trial, jurors found Weitzel guilty of lesser felony and misdemeanor charges. Weitzel was sentenced to serve up to 15 years in prison for the August convictions.
However, Weitzel was awarded a new trial after Kay ruled prosecutors failed to notify defense attorneys of an end-of-life care expert who might testify on the defense's behalf. He was released from custody pending the outcome of his second trial.
Weitzel is also facing 22 federal counts of fraudulently prescribing drugs for his own use. Stirba has withdrawn from that case, too, putting the doctor in a similar legal situation. Weitzel on Monday refused to speak about that case.