Nurse On Trial For Patient Deaths

ByJeff Donn

S P R I N G F I E L D, Mass., Nov. 20, 2000 -- A nurse murdered four patients at aveterans hospital because she liked the thrill of medicalemergencies and wanted to impress her boyfriend, a prosecutor saidin opening statements today in Massachusetts’ first capital casesince the 1980s.

Massachusetts banned the death penalty in 1984. But this is afederal case, brought by the government because the alleged crimestook place on federal property.

Kristen Gilbert, 33, of Setauket, N.Y., is accused of murderingfour patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northamptonby injecting them with high levels of adrenaline. She is alsoaccused of trying to kill three other patients.

The Scapegoat DefenseDefense attorney David Hoose, in his opening statement,countered that all of the patients who died were suffering fromserious illnesses that ultimately killed them.

“All life ends,” Hoose said. “For the four men who died here,life has simply come to an end.”

He said investigators made a scapegoat out of Gilbert, andsuggested that Gilbert’s colleagues turned against her because theysided with her husband in a divorce.

However, prosecutor William Welch said Gilbert provoked medicalemergencies so she could respond and attract the attention of herpeers and James Perrault, her boyfriend who worked as a hospitalsecurity guard.

The prosecutor displayed photographs of the patients on severaloversized television monitors around the courtroom. He then showedthe jury a vial of adrenaline and said Gilbert “transformed thisdrug from a drug of life into a drug of death, solely for her ownpersonal, selfish pleasures.”

Adrenaline is usually used to control heartbeat, but when usedincorrectly can make the heart race.

Welch said that each man had a normal heart when he entered theintensive care unit and that Gilbert tried to cover her tracks byfalsifying medical reports.

He said Gilbert confessed to the attacks to Perrault and to herex-husband. He quoted her as telling Perrault, “I did it! I didit! You wanted to know? I killed all those guys by injection.”

Death Penalty PossibleWelch said it is practically impossible for so many patientswith strong hearts to suffer cardiac arrests for no apparentreason. He said that is like “lightning striking not once, nottwice, not three times, but multiple times … in the same ward —and all following this defendant.”

If the jurors convict Gilbert of murder, they must decide in aseparate penalty phase whether she should get the death penalty orlife in prison without parole.

Massachusetts last executed an inmate in 1947 and has not hadcapital punishment since the state’s highest court struck down thedeath penalty in 1984 during an attempt by prosecutors to bring thedeath penalty against three men accused of gunning down a statetrooper.

“There’s something deeply unsettling about seeing a federalcapital trial in a state that has said ‘no’ to that,” said AnnLambert, a lawyer for the state branch of the American CivilLiberties Union. The ACLU opposes the death penalty.

A 1994 poll of 603 Massachusetts residents by the NortheasternUniversity College of Criminal Justice poll found 74 percent ofrespondents favored the death penalty for first-degree murder. Butwhen asked to choose between the death penalty and life withoutparole, 38 percent preferred death, 54 percent preferred lifewithout parole.

A 1997 Boston Herald poll of 305 voters showed that 74 percentof Massachusetts voters back a death penalty if the victim is achild. The poll was taken shortly after a 10-year-old boy waskidnapped and murdered by two men.

Gilbert was convicted earlier for phoning an anonymous bombthreat to the hospital during the investigation of the deaths. Sheserved 15 months.