A former veterans hospital nurse who killed four patients by overdosing them with medicine was spared the death penalty today when a federal jury decided she should spend the rest of her life in prison.
Kristen Gilbert, 33, could have been sentenced to lethal injection and would have become the only woman on federal death row. A federal judge was expected to make the jury's recommendation a formal sentence this afternoon.
There was no audible reaction in the courtroom as the decision to spare Gilbert was announced. Her parents wept and most of the victims' families sat stone-faced.
Her father and grandmothers pleaded with jurors to let her live, saying a death sentence would be devastating to them and Gilbert's two sons.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney William Welch called Gilbert a "shell of a human being" who deserved to die for the cold and calculating way she murdered her victims, injecting them with overdoses of the heart stimulant epinephrine, also called adrenaline, which made their hearts race out of control. Prosecutors had argued that she wanted to attract attention, especially from her lover, a hospital security guard.
'Kristen Gilbert Is Not a Monster'
Defense attorneys said a life term in prison was a punishment harsh enough for a young woman convicted on evidence they said was nothing more than circumstantial. They had argued that the deaths were due to natural causes.
"It is easier to incite good and decent people to kill when their target is not human but a demon," defense attorney Paul Weinberg said. "Kristen Gilbert is not a monster, she is a human being."
Gilbert's trial began with jury selection last October. Opening statements were given in November.
Gilbert was convicted March 14 of the first-degree murder in the deaths of three veterans. She also was convicted of second-degree murder, which is not subject to the death penalty, in the death of a fourth veteran, and of trying to kill two other veterans.
After the sentencing phase of the trial, jurors deliberated for less than six hours Friday and today.
Victim's Sister Hoped for Death Penalty
Christine Duquette, whose brother, Henry Hudon, 35, who was killed in 1995, was one of the relatives who had hoped for a death sentence. The life sentence, she said Monday, "wouldn't have been my first choice, but I'm happy it's over. It's over and done with finally. I'm not disappointed."
In the past century, only two women have been executed by the federal government. There is no state death penalty in Massachusetts, but Gilbert was eligible for it under federal laws because her crimes took place on federal property, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton.
Gilbert's trial marked only the third time a federal capital murder case has gone to trial in a state that didn't have the death penalty. The other two defendants also escaped a death sentence; those cases were in the 1990s.
Defense attorney David Hoose said he was "very gratified to see that this jury reflected the values of the pioneer valley and greater Massachusetts and spared Kristen's life."
"Where there is life there is hope," Hoose said. "We will appeal. We will continue to fight."
A Spiral Into Destruction
Prosecutors said Gilbert confessed to the murders to both the boyfriend and her estranged husband. Gilbert's lawyers attacked those confessions.
Hoose described his client as a normal young woman who suffered overwhelming emotional stress after her grandfather's death, the ruin of her marriage and her affair with the hospital security guard.
"I don't know what caused her to break down and spiral to the depths of where she is today," Hoose said. "I don't know that anyone could tell you the answer to that."
Welch said Gilbert's stress had nothing to do with her becoming a murderer in 1995 and 1996.
"This defendant did not snap," he said. "People do not snap for a period of seven months when they kill four human beings."
Gilbert was convicted earlier for phoning an anonymous bomb threat to the hospital during the investigation of the deaths. She served 15 months.