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Comfort Care or Murder? Ohio Doc Accused of Killing 14 Patients Awaits His Fate

Prosecutors on Monday likened an Ohio doctor accused of killing 14 critically ill patients with massive doses of powerful drugs to a vet putting down an old dog.

“The veterinarian is not giving them that medicine because that veterinarian is a bad person with malice in their heart,” Franklin County Assistant Prosecutor David Zeyen said during closing arguments in the contentious murder trial of William Husel, a former anesthesiologist who worked the night shift at Columbus’ Mount Carmel West hospital. “They are doing that out of mercy because that is what you do to sick animals. But their intention is not just to cover their pain and let them die a natural death. Their purpose…is to kill them. That is fine in veterinary science. That is not fine in the ICU.”

Osteopath William Husel, 46, was charged with 14 counts of murder after numerous people died from alleged overdoses of fentanyl and benzodiazepines while under his care between 2015 and 2018. Husel’s defense lawyers argued that he was providing palliative end-of-life treatment to keep his patients comfortable during their final moments.

Prosecutors, however, claimed that Husel purposefully overprescribed the drugs in lethal amounts, administering up to 2,000 micrograms of fentanyl to accelerate his patients’ deaths. More than 50 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution, including former colleagues, medical experts, and family members of victims.

Mariah Baird—Husel’s wife, nurse, and one-time co-worker—is not facing criminal charges but has been named in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by at least one victim’s family.

Addressing the jury, Zeyen said the definition of murder in Ohio “is very straightforward,” putting up a slide that read: “Purposely cause the death of another.”

“What did he intend to do when he administered these doses?” Zeyen asked, following up with an explanation of the legal specificities.

“The motive is the why,” he said. “The purpose is the intention.”

It is not a defense to say, “They were about to die anyway,” Zeyen told the jury.

“The fact that 14 people died… will not be in dispute,” he said.

“Even though they were very critically ill and perhaps some of them were on a trajectory to die very soon anyway, you cannot hasten their death,’ Zeyen argued. “You cannot quickly or painlessly cause the death of a dying person. You can’t do it. Not in the state of Ohio.”

Husel’s license to practice medicine was suspended in January 2019.

Defense attorney Jose Baez began his closing arguments at around noon, insisting that prosecutors had selectively presented certain details helpful to their case while withholding those casting a favorable light on Husel’s actions.

“You have the entire medical industry telling you there’s no maximum dose of fentanyl, but the prosecution told you something else,” Baez said, adding that Mount Carmel West did not impose a dose limit on doctors prescribing fentanyl.

In fact, argued Baez, Husel’s patients died from being taken off the ventilators, not from the doses of fentanyl he prescribed.

Husel never tried to hide anything or cover up his decisions, according to Baez, who reminded the jury that Husel “didn’t make any money if these people died” and that he “didn’t have anything against” them personally.

“They’re asking you to take a huge leap of faith, to turn this case into a criminal case. The dosing amounts…will all be decided in a different courtroom,” said Baez, earning a rebuke from the judge after mentioning the concurrent civil case now underway.

In a sidebar with the jury out of the courtroom, Baez told Judge Michael Holbrook that the prosecution didn’t ask certain questions of doctors testifying for them as witnesses because “they didn’t like the answers they were going to get. That’s why they didn’t ask.”

Last month, former Mount Carmel official Dr. Larry Swanner testified that Husel was the only ICU doctor at the hospital administering 500 micrograms and up of fentanyl when removing patients’ breathing tubes. On Monday, Baez argued that Swanner learned of this from privileged hospital records, and may have been improperly elicited by prosecutors.

Swanner, who describes himself as a “proven and collaborative medical affairs executive with experience in performance and clinical quality improvement,” was fired by Mount Carmel—as was Husel—in July 2019.

The burden of proving Husel’s guilt falls to prosecutors, Baez reminded the jury on Monday.

“It was their responsibility, and they did not deliver that to you,” he said. “This is not something you would expect or want for your neighbor, or your loved one. Someone who saved lives for a living…did so much for this community.”

The judge said he will allow the jury to consider the lesser charge of attempted murder, although the burden of proof as to Husel’s intent remains the same.

If convicted of murder, Husel faces life in prison.

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