An Ohio doctor accused by prosecutors of hastening the deaths of numerous intensive care patients by prescribing excessive doses of painkillers was found not guilty on 14 counts of murder Wednesday.
Dr. William Husel, 46, was accused of prescribing extremely high doses of fentanyl to his patients, resulting in their deaths at Mount Carmel West hospital in Ohio, where he worked from 2013 to 2018.
The age of the patients who died ranged from 37 to 82. The case began as a homicide investigation involving 25 victims, but the trial was pared down 14 of the strongest cases, Franklin County Prosecutor Gary Tyack said.
All 14 patients died within 30 minutes of Husel administering them fentanyl doses ranging from 500 to 2,000 micrograms.
Husel’s defense argued that his dosing practices were for comfort care only and that death for his critically ill patients was imminent.
“This was the only verdict that justice could have given,” said Husel’s defense attorney, Jose Baez. “This verdict speaks to not only William but all those doctors and nurses out there who are attempting their best to give comfort care in a very difficult situation. They don’t need to be looking over their shoulder wondering if they’re ever going to get charged with a crime.”
The trial was one of the longest in Ohio history, lasting seven weeks, with jurors reaching an impasse before coming to an agreement on Husel’s innocence.
As Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Holbrook read each verdict Wednesday, Husel wiped tears from his eyes. His wife wrapped her arms around her sister and wept as the final verdict was read.
With even one guilty verdict for murder, Husel would have served life in prison with eligibility for parole in 15 years.
Husel was fired from Mount Carmel in 2018, after the hospital system determined he had ordered excessive painkillers for about three dozen patients who died over several years. His license was suspended by the Ohio Medical Board and he allowed its renewal to lapse.
Prosecutors equated Husel’s high dosing to what veterinarians might use to humanely put down animals — but unacceptable for humans. One expert witness said doses of up to 2,000 micrograms of fentanyl ordered by Husel for some patients were enough to kill an elephant.
82-year-old Melissa Penix was given 2,000 micrograms of fentanyl ordered by Husel and died four minutes later. Dr. John Schweig of Tampa Bay General Hospital testified for the prosecution that Penix “definitely was not terminal, nor was continuing medical care futile.”
“She was a fighter,” said Penix’s daughter, Bev Leonhard. “She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”
Prosecutors presented their case beginning Feb. 22, calling on 53 witnesses before resting on March 29. By contrast, defense lawyers called a single witness — a Georgia anesthesiologist — to testify that Husel’s patients died from their medical conditions, not the doctor’s actions.
The excessive number of witnesses called by prosecutors, along with failing to properly explain procedures for appropriately dispensing fentanyl and other drugs, may have been their downfall, Judge Holbrook said.
The Franklin County Prosecutor’s office released a short statement, concluding: “We accept the jury verdict.”
Husel’s colleagues who administered the medications weren’t criminally charged, but the hospital system said it fired 23 nurses, pharmacists and managers after its internal investigation and referred various employees to their respective state boards for possible disciplinary action.
Mount Carmel has reached settlements totaling more than $16.7 million over the deaths of at least 17 patients, with more lawsuits pending. Husel still faces more than 10 active civil lawsuits from the families of patients who died while under his care.
Contributing: The Associated Press