On September 21, 1999, psychiatrist Robert Weitzel was arrested on charges of murdering five elderly patients he was treating at a geriatric-psychiatric medical facility in Layton, Utah.
Weitzel was charged with first-degree murder for administering or prescribing excessive amounts of morphine to five patients under his care at Davis Hospital and Medical Center in December 1995 and January 1996. During a two-year period when Weitzel was at the facility, only six patients died at the facility and five of those deaths were patients under his care who died in a two month period, prompting an investigation that included exhuming the victims’ bodies. The patients ranged in age from 72 to 93 years old.
The charges triggered a national debate over the use of pain medicine in the treatment of terminally ill patients.
At the time of his arrest, Weitzel was also indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of illegal prescription drug abuse for writing numerous prescriptions for morphine and Demerol for his own personal use.
Weitzel went to trial on the murder charges in Davis County District Court in June 2000. Medical experts testified for the prosecution that the patients’ bodies contained excessive amounts of morphine and concluded that Weitzel was engaging in a pattern of euthanasia. The experts testified that Weitzel systematically weakened the patients with psychotropic drugs and then killed them with morphine overdoses.
Weitzel’s attorney argued that Weitzel did nothing but fulfill his ethical duty to ease the pain of dying patients. Weitzel testified that the families of the five patients “were on board with me—understanding what was going on and wanting their loved ones to be comfortable.
Three experts testified for the defense that the morphine Weitzel used was beneficial to his patients. The experts testified that based on their reviews of the patients' medical records, morphine had nothing to do with the five deaths.
On July 10, 2000, a jury convicted Weitzel of two counts of felony manslaughter and three counts of misdemeanor negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 1 to 15 years in prison.
In August 2000, Dr. Perry Fine addressed a meeting of the Utah Coalition to Improve End of Life Care and disclosed that he had been hired as an expert for the prosecution. Fine said that after he told the prosecution he did not believe Weitzel had engaged in any criminal conduct, he was not called as a witness. A lawyer at the meeting who represented Weitzel in civil matters informed Weitzel’s criminal defense lawyers about Fine’s comments. The criminal defense lawyers filed a motion for a new trial based on Fine’s comments.
At a hearing on the motion, Fine testified that he told the prosecution prior to Weitzel’s trial that in his opinion, the patients were terminally ill and in pain and that Weitzel’s actions may have been medical malpractice, but were not criminal conduct.
In January 2001, Judge Thomas Kay issued an opinion vacating Weitzel’s convictions and granting a new trial. Kay said, “Given the qualifications of Dr. Fine…the likelihood of a different result is sufficiently high so as to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial.” Weitzel, who had been incarcerated after he was convicted, was released on bond pending a second trial.
In August 2001, Weitzel, whose medical license had been suspended, pled guilty to two counts of federal prescription fraud for writing the prescriptions for his personal use and was sentenced to one year and a day in prison to be served after his retrial for the deaths of the elderly patients.
Weitzel went on trial a second time in November 2002 on two counts of felony manslaughter and three counts of negligent homicide.
Dr. Michael Crookston, a psychiatrist and medical director of a drug and alcohol treatment program, testified for the prosecution that he reviewed the medical records of the five people who died and concluded that in each case, Weitzel had deviated from the practices that Crookston upholds for these types of circumstances.
“It is not a standard of care I would hold myself to nor a standard of care that anyone I would wish to work with would hold to,” Crookston testified.
Under cross-examination, Crookston said there is no “magic formula” that solves every problem for patients and that not all doctors agree on what and how much medication is proper.
Crookston also acknowledged the women were “very difficult patients to treat” because of their multiple medical problems, including dementia. However, he said prudent doctors start medications at a low dose and increase it slowly instead of starting them off with heavy doses as Weitzel did. Crookston said this was important for geriatric patients because they often are frail, sensitive to medication and may experience more side effects than other patients.
Dr. Fine testified for the defense. He conceded that he had told the prosecution prior to Weitzel’s first trial that Weitzel had provided “bumbling” and “D minus” care. But Fine also said he told the prosecution that there was not enough evidence to indicate criminal wrongdoing.
Fine testified that his initial opinion of Weitzel’s work “was considerably altered” after reviewing a complete set of records instead of just what the prosecution had showed him.
“To condemn these actions taken by Dr. Weitzel would have condemned these patients to horrible deaths,” Fine testified. He told the jury that the five women died from the progression of their pre-existing physical medical problems, not from doses or combinations of either psychotropic drugs or morphine prescribed by Weitzel.
Dr. Todd Grey, Utah State Medical Examiner, who performed autopsies on the women after their bodies were exhumed, testified that he could not rule out the possibility that the women could have died from such things as dementia or other natural causes that would have been hard to determine in an autopsy, particularly after bodies had deteriorated.
On November 22, 2002, the jury acquitted Weitzel.
Weitzel later served his federal sentence and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Davis County law enforcement claiming he was wrongfully prosecuted. The lawsuit was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley