Nurse On Trial For Patient Deaths

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

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

Kristen Gilbert, 33, of Setauket, N.Y., is accused of murdering four patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton by injecting them with high levels of adrenaline. She is also accused of trying to kill three other patients.

The Scapegoat Defense Defense attorney David Hoose, in his opening statement, countered that all of the patients who died were suffering from serious 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, and suggested that Gilbert’s colleagues turned against her because they sided with her husband in a divorce.

However, prosecutor William Welch said Gilbert provoked medical emergencies so she could respond and attract the attention of her peers and James Perrault, her boyfriend who worked as a hospital security guard.

The prosecutor displayed photographs of the patients on several oversized television monitors around the courtroom. He then showed the jury a vial of adrenaline and said Gilbert “transformed this drug from a drug of life into a drug of death, solely for her own personal, selfish pleasures.”

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

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

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

Death Penalty Possible Welch said it is practically impossible for so many patients with strong hearts to suffer cardiac arrests for no apparent reason. He said that is like “lightning striking not once, not twice, 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 a separate penalty phase whether she should get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

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

“There’s something deeply unsettling about seeing a federal capital trial in a state that has said ‘no’ to that,” said Ann Lambert, a lawyer for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU opposes the death penalty.

A 1994 poll of 603 Massachusetts residents by the Northeastern University College of Criminal Justice poll found 74 percent of respondents favored the death penalty for first-degree murder. But when asked to choose between the death penalty and life without parole, 38 percent preferred death, 54 percent preferred life without parole.

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

Gilbert was convicted earlier for phoning an anonymous bomb threat to the hospital during the investigation of the deaths. She served 15 months.