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Kristen Gilbert Trial: 2000-01

Prosecutors Seek Death Sentence, Nurse Accused Of Murdering To Impress Lover, Jury Convicts But Spares Nurse's Life

Defendant: Kristen H. Gilbert
Crimes Charged: Murder, attempted murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: David P. Hoose, Harry L. Miles, Paul Weinberg
Chief Prosecutors: William M. Welch, Ariane D. Vuono
Judge: Michael A. Ponsor
Place: Springfield, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: October 16, 2000-March 26, 2001
Verdict: Guilty of three cases of first-degree murder and of one case of second-degree-murder; also guilty of two cases of intent to murder
Sentence: Life imprisonment with no chance for parole

SIGNIFICANCE: Aside from the seriousness of the charge and an aura of scandal in elements of this case, there was a broader issue: Was it appropriate for the federal authorities to seek a first-degree conviction under a federal law that carried the death sentence when the state—in this instance, Massachusetts—did not allow the death penalty?

Between January 1995 and February 1996, a disturbing pattern of deaths began to emerge at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. Patients, all male veterans of a variety of ages and medical conditions, were dying suddenly and unexpectedly—in some instances, in fact, with no apparent links to their diagnosed medical condition. The pattern included the fact that these patients would appear one moment to be resting comfortably, however serious their condition, and then suddenly go into cardiac arrest. Despite the quick and best efforts of a team of personnel trained for such emergencies, most of these patients died.

Then some of the staff began to be aware of another part of the pattern. One particular nurse seemed to be on duty during a disproportionate number of these crises. Not only on duty—she would often be reported as the last member of the hospital staff to have been alone with the patient. Then she was often among the first to respond to the emergency, during which she would seem to be making heroic efforts to save the patient.

Eventually three nurses went to their superiors and expressed their suspicions. They believed that this nurse was involved somehow in creating these medical crises. When the government pursued these suspicions, exhumations and autopsies of a number of the dead followed, and traces of a dangerous drug allegedly were found in their body tissue. This drug, epinephrine, is used by doctors in emergencies to stimulate a heart that has stopped; however, used in an overdose or when there is no actual threat of cardiac arrest, epinephrine causes the heart to beat uncontrollably and then stop abruptly. On the basis of various alleged links between the nurse and vials of epinephrine in the hospital, federal authorities charged 31-year-old Kristen Gilbert with murdering four patients and attempting to murder three more. In fact, during the seven years she worked at the VA Hospital (March 1989 to February 1996), one-half of the deaths there occurred in her ward, and she was known to have been present at the death of 37 patients during about a one-year period (January 1995 to February 1996). The government chose to focus on seven cases.

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