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Former Nurse Charged With Killing 10 Veterans Is Set Free

The tests done on the bodies of patients who died in 1992 are found to be inconclusive.

August 07, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — A former nurse charged with killing 10 patients in a veterans hospital in Missouri in 1992 and suspected in dozens of other deaths there was freed Wednesday after prosecutors learned the medical tests that led to the charges did not necessarily point to murder.

Richard Williams, 36, who was arrested in 2002 and was facing the death penalty, walked out of the county jail in Columbia, Mo., after Boone County prosecutors dropped all charges against him. Williams, who had maintained his innocence, was accused of injecting patients with the muscle relaxant succinylcholine (suk-sinal-KO-leen) to halt their breathing.

In a letter to prosecutors delivered this week, Dr. Kevin Ballard, who had performed tests on the bodies of some of Williams' patients, said he now believed that "no definitive conclusions can be drawn" from the presence of a relative of the drug in the corpses.

"After lengthy consultation with both scientific and legal experts I have tried, even up to this last moment, to identify a way to maintain this prosecution," Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane said in a statement. "However, absent additional evidence, the legal standard for proving murder beyond a reasonable doubt cannot be met at this time.

"Now, as it was between 1992 and 2002," he continued, "adequate evidence to show these veterans did not die of natural causes is once again absent in this case."

Don Catlett, Williams' attorney, said the charges had resulted from "junk science" and political pressure in the high-profile, long-running case. He said Williams did not want to speak to the press and was on his way home to the St. Louis suburbs.

Williams had pleaded not guilty and his trial was scheduled to begin in October.

The case was predicated on the notion that succinylmonocholine is not naturally found in the body and thus its precursor succinylcholine must have been introduced.

When FBI scientists attempted to test Ballard's results in May, they, too, found succinylmonocholine in the tissues of Williams' patients. However, they also discovered the substance in "control" tissues. In subsequent tests, Ballard had the same results. The substance may find its way into tissues during autopsy procedures, Crane said, though the precise mechanism is unclear.

A Florida appeals court tossed out similar evidence in another case, saying the tests by the lab for which Ballard works, Willow Grove, Pa.-based National Medical Services Laboratories, had not been verified by outside experts.

Ballard could not be reached Wednesday, and his company declined to comment.

More than a decade after the deaths, the news came as yet another letdown to the families of those who died under Williams' watch.

"Kevin Crane called me this morning and said he had to let him go," said Sydney Havrum, 53, whose father-in-law, Elzie Havrum, 66, was among the 10 patients Williams had been charged with killing. "We were all crazy about Elzie. This is truly unbelievable."

Despite Williams' release, many questions remain unanswered following years of investigations into his employment at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia.

In 1998, Elzie Havrum's widow, Helen Havrum, won a $450,000 civil negligence suit against the hospital. U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey in her ruling said a preponderance of the evidence caused her to believe that Williams was responsible for Elzie Havrum's death and that the hospital had reason to believe Williams was a danger to his patients but did nothing to stop him.

The FBI spent five years looking into 43 deaths on the hospital floor where Williams worked and found 11 to be "highly suspicious" and 22 "moderately suspicious."

A doctor at the hospital, Gordon Christensen, who first called attention to the deaths, found patients were 10 times more likely to die while Williams was on duty.

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