Physician Charged With Murder of Patients for Whom He Provided Comfort Care

The Trial

The trial began in February 2022. A jury of 7 women and 5 men were seated in the case. In her opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury that Dr H had prescribed “unwarranted and unprecedented” dosages of fentanyl, more than was medically necessary to ease pain, and that his actions caused the patients’ deaths. Dr H’s defense attorney told the jury that the physician had prescribed the fentanyl in an effort to relieve his patients from pain and that he did not commit murder.

The prosecution took over a month to put on its case. Prosecutors introduced over 50 witnesses, including numerous pharmacists, nurses, and expert physicians. In one testimony from a pharmacist, for example, the pharmacist noted that he questioned one of the doctor’s orders, asking if he had accidentally added an extra 0. According to the pharmacist, Dr H replied, “That’s what I ordered. We’re doing a procedure up here.”

All of the nurses and pharmacists involved in the care of the patients testified that their intent was to provide pain relief when administering the medication. But experts called by the prosecution testified that the amount of medication prescribed was excessive, with one expert saying the amount of fentanyl given was enough to “kill an elephant.” Prosecutors also had family members of the alleged victim testify.

After a month of testimony from 53 witnesses, the prosecution rested its case. The defense put on one single witness only – an anesthesiologist and intensive care specialist who testified at great length about the use of opioids to treat pain in dying patients and why there is no maximum dose. The witness testified about the need to give an adequate dose of pain medication because you want to relieve a patient’s pain, adding that with pain control and dying you “want to get it right because you don’t get a second chance.” The witness stated that Dr H’s prescribing of fentanyl and other medications was for the sole purpose of providing the relief of pain and anxiety to patients as they faced death because of concurrent critical illness.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor argued that Dr H had intended to hasten or cause the deaths of the 14 patients, and it did not matter if they were already ill or close to death. The prosecutor argued that Dr H’s late-night shift gave him cover to order excessive amount of medication. The defense argued that the physician was merely relieving his patients’ suffering, and that the deaths were caused by their underlying disease or being removed from ventilators, not from the fentanyl.

The jury deliberated for 8 days before finding Dr H not guilty of murder.