Kristen Gilbert Trial: 2000-01

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Kristen Gilbert Trial: 2000-01

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 statein this instance, Massachusettsdid 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 unexpectedlyin 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 dutyshe 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.

Prosecutors Seek Death Sentence

A grand jury indicted Gilbert on November 18, 1998, and an extended series of motions and hearings and appeals followed. Multiple charges of murder would have been fought by any defense lawyers, but what gave this particular case its special edgeand high profile in the mediawas the fact that the federal government had chosen to go for a first-degree murder conviction that carried the possibility of the death penalty. (It was a federal case because the alleged crimes occurred on federal property.) In any jurisdiction, this would have caused some comment, but in Massachusetts, it was the occasion for special controversy: Massachusetts did not have the death penalty (and had not executed anyone since 1946). Even among those who believed Gilbert guilty, many felt that, if she had done what she was charged with doing, she was a seriously disturbed individual. In fact, in 1998 she had been found guilty in a related casenamely, telephoning bomb threats to the VA hospitalwhich to some suggested that she was at the very least an unbalanced person.

Nurse Accused of Murdering to Impress Lover

In the end, the judge and the appeals court handed down a series of rulings that finally allowed the trial to begin on October 16, 2000, at the federal courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. The selection of a jury was complicated because it was a capital case that would almost certainly go on for several months, which meant that large numbers of potential jurors would be excused. After an exhaustive process, which included having hundreds of potential jurors fill out a 17-page questionnaire, a jury of 12 and six alternates was seated on November 17. The proceedings then began on November 20.

In its opening statement, the government claimed that Gilbert had injected epinephrine in order to induce medical crises in these patients so that she could then appear instantly at their bedside to participate in attempts to save these men. Her motive for doing so? To "show off in front of her new boyfriend, James Perrault, a policeman on the staff at the VA Hospital who, in line with hospital policy, was required to be present during such an emergency. The defense said it would establish that there was simply not enough proof that these men had died from the epinephrine injections, and that in any case, there was not enough proof that Gilbert had been the one to inject them with it.

Anticipating that it was going to be a long trial, Judge Michael A. Ponsor had advised all the lawyers involved to exercise regularly: "It's a marathon, not a sprint." His premonition proved correct. Week after week the government called its witnesses to the stand as it tried to build up a "compelling wall of guilt," as the chief prosecutor called it, one that would hold up against reasonable doubt. Doctors testified that the alleged victims had not shown indications of being in risk of dying. Medical specialists testified to the effects of epinephrine. Nurses testified to their growing suspicions about Gilbert's actions, particularly about the empty epinephrine vials at the bedside of dead patients after she had been present.

But the prosecution's case took a dramatic turn on January 5, 2001, when the government admitted that the results of tests from a toxicology laboratory, which had analyzed the amounts of epinephrine in the alleged victims, were in error. The results did not, after all, establish the presence of the high levels on which the charges were based. The government agreed that it would no longer use these results as the basis of their case. Once the prosecution admitted this, the defense moved to stop certain witnesses from giving any testimony, but Judge Ponsor, although admitting it was an "extremely disturbing development," chose instead to advise the jurors that the now discredited toxicology evidence was being withdrawn. Further complicating the prosecution's case was the fact that two of the alleged victims had been given epinephrine during the unsuccessful efforts to resuscitate them.

Most of the prosecution's case was based on rather technical testimony, but some of the more human testimony came from relatives of the dead veterans who described how suddenly and inexplicably their loved ones had died. Two of the more dramatic witnesses were Gilbert's ex-husband and James Perrault, the policeman with whom she was having an affair at the time of the incidents. Glenn Gilbert claimed that on two occasions she had confessed to the murders; Perrault told a similar story, that she had told him she "killed all those guys."

There were few light moments in such a trial, but one came when Dr. Michael Baden, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, was correcting a mistake he had made in referring to the condition of one of the alleged victim's heart. He said the mistake was merely a "senile moment"he had meant to say "senior moment." The defense inevitably jumped on this second misstatement to challenge Baden's testimony.

After 10 weeks of the prosecution's case, the defense took over. In crossexaminations, they had already attacked the motives of various witnesses for the prosecution, charging for instance, that Perrault hoped to get a promotion by testifying on behalf of the hospital's authorities. Now the defense offered their own witnesses who testified to Gilbert's reputation as a competent, caring nurse; they tried to turn the prosecution's case inside out, claiming that her frequent presence at the side of patients with cardiac arrest demonstrated her expertise.

Gilbert herself did not take the stand. But the defense called on various medical specialists who cast doubt on whether these men had in fact died from epinephrineeven claiming that the records showed they had died of natural causes. Under cross-examination by the prosecution, however, the chief medical expert for the defense conceded that, although the deaths were most likely natural, "anything is possible."

Jury Convicts But Spares Nurse's Life

When the arguments ended on February 22, 2001, Judge Ponsor, in his charge to the jury, did something quite significant. He told the jury that they need not limit themselves to a finding of first-degree murderthey could find Gilbert guilty of second-degree murder, which meant life imprisonment but no threat of execution. In any case, if they were to find her guilty of first-degree murder, the jury would have to sit on another session to decide whether she should be executed or imprisoned for life.

After 83 hours of deliberation during 12 days, the jury returned with their verdict on March 14, finding Gilbert guilty of first-degree murder in three cases, and second-degree murder in the other; she was also found guilty of assault with intent to kill in two of the three other cases. Because of the first-degree murder finding, under federal law the jury then had to go back into new sessions to determine the punishment. They returned with this decision on March 26, announcing that they could not reach a unanimous decision required for the death penalty. The judge then sentenced Gilbert to three consecutive terms for life imprisonment without any chance of parole. Inevitably, Gilbert's attorneys announced they would appeal the conviction, but it appeared that Kristen Gilbert was going to spend the rest of her life in prison.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Daily Hampshire Gazette (March 30, 2000; July 14, 2000; October 4, 17, 21, 2000; November 13, 17, 18, 20, 21, 27 2000; December 14, 21, 2000; January 6, 12, 22, 26, 27, 29, 2001; February 5, 12, 13, 17, 22, 23, 2001; March 15, 27, 28, 2001).

"Gilbert Trial Timeline."