In an unprecedented murder case about end-of-life care, a physician accused of killing 14 critically ill patients with opioid overdoses in a Columbus, Ohio hospital ICU over a period of 4 years was found not guilty by a jury Wednesday.
The jury, after a 7-week trial featuring more than 50 witnesses in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, declared William Husel, DO, not guilty on 14 counts of murder and attempted murder.
In a news conference after the verdict was announced, lead defense attorney Jose Baez said Husel, whom he called a "great doctor," hopes to practice medicine again in the future. The verdict, he argued, offers an encouraging sign that physicians and other providers won't face prosecution for providing "comfort care" to patients suffering pain. "They don't need to be looking over their shoulders worrying about whether they'll get charged with crimes," he said.
The prosecutors in the case declined to comment, other than to say they "accept" the verdict.
Legal experts said it's highly unlikely that Ohio or any other state would restore Husel's suspended medical license. "I doubt he could ever work in medicine again," said Mark Schumacher, a Columbus medical malpractice defense attorney who retired in 2020 after practicing for 39 years and who followed the trial closely.
The trial raised the specific issue of what constitutes a medically justifiable dose of opioid painkillers during the end-of-life procedure known as palliative extubation, in which critically ill patients are withdrawn from the ventilator when they are expected to die. Under medicine's so-called double-effect principle, physicians must weigh the benefits and risks of ordering potentially lethal doses of painkillers and sedatives to provide comfort care for critically ill patients.
To many observers, however, the case really centered on the largely hidden debate over whether it's acceptable to hasten the deaths of dying patients who haven't chosen that path. That's called euthanasia, which is illegal in the United States. In contrast, 10 states plus the District of Columbia allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill, mentally competent adults who can self-administer them. That's called medical aid in dying, or physician-assisted dying or suicide.
"Maybe this is a wake-up call that people believe this is the right thing to do," said Lewis Nelson, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. "The medical community has a sense that we often prolong life unnecessarily. But a physician cannot unilaterally decide it's time for someone to die. It sounds like [Husel] took that decision into his own hands."
The case also exposed major gaps in the patient safety culture at Mount Carmel West Hospital in Columbus, which is owned by the Catholic chain Trinity Health. Experts say failures by hospital staff to question physicians' orders and raise patient safety concerns, as happened at Mount Carmel, occur at many hospitals around the country. Experts say the Husel case offers vital lessons for healthcare professionals about improving safety procedures.
"This is an extreme example, that everyone should learn from, about what not to do," said Michael Cohen, RPh, founder and president emeritus of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. "Husel was giving massive overdoses of drugs, people knew it was problematic, and someone didn't put their foot down. You've got to have a process in place to address these situations where there is disagreement over the safety of a medication order."
Husel was charged with killing the 14 patients from 2015 through 2018 by ordering single large doses of the painkiller fentanyl — from 500 to 2000 micrograms — often in combination with other opioids and sedatives, while working as the solo physician on the overnight shift in the ICU at Mount Carmel West Hospital and at Mount Carmel St. Ann's Hospital in Westerville, Ohio.
Husel ordered administration of the drugs while his patients were having an endotracheal tube removed as part of palliative extubation. There was conflicting testimony during the trial about whether the patients were showing signs of pain or were even capable of feeling pain.
Prosecutors argued that Husel, who did a residency and fellowship in critical care medicine at Cleveland Clinic and started working at Mount Carmel in 2013 in his first job as a full-fledged physician, intended to kill the patients or hasten their deaths. They contended that the inexperienced nurses in the ICU went along with his large drug doses because they were "in thrall" to him because of his prestigious background at the Cleveland Clinic and his willingness to take the time to teach them.
"With his training in anesthesiology, he knew what those drugs do," assistant prosecutor David Zeyen said in closing arguments last week. "This isn't negligence. This is on purpose…Euthanizing animals with the intent to kill is fine in veterinary medicine. It's not fine in the ICU at Mount Carmel or anywhere."
The defense team argued that Husel was a caring and compassionate physician who ordered the drugs to relieve the patients' pain and discomfort during the extubation process. He did not testify.
"Common sense says Dr Husel had no motive to harm patients," defense attorney Baez said in his closing. "He dedicated his life to taking care of patients and saving lives, not taking them…Why would this man risk his family, career, and 17 years of trying to be a doctor to hasten someone's death or kill them?"
There were 35 Mount Carmel patients who died in the ICU under Husel's care after receiving large fentanyl doses during palliative extubation. The state originally charged Husel with murder in 25 of those cases, then reduced that to 14.
Many of Husel's drug orders were given verbally instead of through the regular process of being entered into the electronic health record. He and the nurses on duty also skipped the standard nonemergency process of getting approval from the pharmacist on duty, instead using the override function on Mount Carmel's automated Pyxis drug dispensing system.
Husel's unusual dosing patterns were first reported to Mount Carmel officials by pharmacists in October 2018, spurring an investigation. The hospital system let him go in December 2018, after concluding that the opioid dosages he used were "significantly excessive and potentially fatal" and "went beyond providing comfort."
Nearly two dozen RNs and two pharmacists involved in these cases have faced state disciplinary action, mostly license suspension. Federal and state agencies have cited the Mount Carmel system for faults in its patient safety processes and culture that were exposed by the Husel cases.
The Mount Carmel CEO; the chief clinical officer; other physician, nursing, and pharmacy leaders; and dozens of nurses and pharmacists were forced out following the Husel investigation.
In 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, after threatening to cut off federal reimbursements to Mount Carmel, accepted the hospital system's correction plan restricting the use of verbal drug orders and prohibiting Pyxis system overrides for opioids except in life-threatening emergencies. The Ohio Board of Pharmacy hit Mount Carmel with $477,000 in fines and costs for pharmacy rules violations.
Mount Carmel and Trinity have settled a number of civil wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of Husel's patients for nearly $20 million, with many more suits pending. Gerry Leeseberg, a Columbus medical malpractice plaintiff attorney who is representing 17 of the families, said a number of the cases are set for trial starting in June.
During the trial, family members of many of the 14 patients whom Husel allegedly murdered testified that Husel told them their loved ones were dying. Some said they felt rushed into making a decision to extubate the person.
Before performing a palliative extubation, physicians commonly administer opioids and/or sedatives to ease pain and discomfort, and spare family members from witnessing their loved one gasping for breath. But most medical experts — including the state's two physician expert witnesses — say the fentanyl doses Husel ordered were 5 to 20 times larger than doses normally used in palliative extubation. Such doses, they say, will quickly kill most patients — except those with high opioid tolerance — by stopping their breathing.
Physicians say they typically give much smaller doses of fentanyl or morphine, then administer more as needed if they observe the patient experiencing pain or distress. Mount Carmel's 2016 guidelines for IV administration of fentanyl specified a dosage range of 50 to 100 micrograms for relieving pain, and its 2018 guidelines reduced that to 25 to 50 micrograms.
The doses Husel ordered are lethal, even for most patients with some tolerance to opioids, said Rutgers EM chair Nelson, who also practices medical toxicology and addiction medicine. "Those are doses to provide euthanasia, not to relieve pain."
At trial, the prosecutors had to overcome two big challenges to win murder convictions against Husel: They had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the drugs Husel ordered are what directly caused these critically ill patients to die, and that he intended to kill them.
Late in the trial, at the state's request, the judge ruled to allow the jury to also consider attempted murder charges, which require proof of intent but not that the defendant's actions directly caused the deaths.
Another challenge was that physicians have certain legal protections for administering drugs to patients for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering, even if the drugs hasten the patients' deaths — as long the intent was not to cause death and the drugs were properly used. This is known as the double-effect principle. In contrast, intentional killing to relieve pain and suffering is called euthanasia. That's what prosecutors accused Husel of doing.
"If you hasten a person's death, even if their death is as sure as the sun is going to rise in the morning…you have caused their death in the eyes of the law," assistant prosecutor Zeyen said in his closing. "You don't get a pass for killing a dying man…"
Leeseberg said it was always going to be extremely hard to convince a jury to convict a physician of murder, with the potential of life in prison, in a case where the physician's acts occurred openly over 4 years in a hospital setting where no one did anything to stop him. It would have been much easier to convince a jury to convict him of reckless homicide, a lesser offense with a shorter prison term. That only would have required proving that he acted in reckless disregard for his patients' health and safety.
In post-verdict comments to the news media, Judge Michael Holbrook said jurors told him that the procedures for the dispensing of fentanyl and other drugs at Mount Carmel weren't properly explained to them during the trial, and that they were confused by the large number of prosecution witnesses. He also said they were confused that no one had stated a maximum dosage for fentanyl.
Schumacher, the retired malpractice defense lawyer who followed the trial closely, disagreed with defense attorney Baez's takeaway about the impact of the case on pain-relief practices. In his view, the case likely will heighten rather than reduce the anxiety of physicians and nurses about administering opioids, even when the dosages are clearly needed and appropriate. He doesn't think Husel's dosages can be justified, however.
"Physicians have a naive overreaction to any legal development, and overgeneralize from a particular case to everyday practice," he said.
There is only one known prior case that's somewhat comparable of a physician tried for murder or attempted murder for giving a critically ill patient opioids for pain relief. In 1996, a Kansas jury convicted Lloyd Stanley Naramore, DO, of attempted murder in the death of a patient to whom he gave an opioid, and of second-degree murder for removing a patient from a ventilator. After Naramore served 6 months in prison, an appellate court reversed the convictions for lack of evidence.
Last month, RaDonda Vaught, a nurse who worked at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was convicted of criminal neglect and negligent homicide in Nashville for mistakenly administering a fatal dose of the paralyzing drug vecuronium, instead of the prescribed drug Versed (midazolam), to a patient. Providers around the country were alarmed by her criminal prosecution for what was clearly an unintentional error.
But legal and medical experts said Husel's case was sharply different from Vaught's and Naramore's because he deliberately and repeatedly ordered large doses of fentanyl and other drugs that he knew or should have known were potentially lethal. "You don't need 2000 micrograms of fentanyl plus other drugs for comfort care, and repeat that again and again for patient after patient," said Cohen, of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. "No one gives that to patients. You'll knock them off."
During the trial, prosecutors said repeatedly that no one except Husel knows what he was thinking when he ordered those huge drug dosages for his ICU patients. Judge Holbrook told the jury the state did not have to prove motive, only intent. But many observers still have wondered what his motives were.
Husel's own view of his care in these cases soon will become public. Immediately after Wednesday's verdict, Leeseberg filed a notice requesting a May 9 deposition of Husel, who will no longer be able to claim the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He predicted the deposition will last about a week, and then the transcript will be publicly available.
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