COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A Boone County grand jury on Wednesday indicted a former nurse in the deaths of 10 patients who died on his watch at a veterans hospital, a procedural move that replaces charges filed last month.
The indictments against Richard Allen Williams, 36, removed the need for a preliminary hearing, scheduled for Thursday, on the original charges. Instead, Williams is to be arraigned Monday on the counts filed by the grand jury.
Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane said he will announce at that time whether he will seek the death penalty against Williams. First-degree murder is punishable by death or life imprisonment without chance of parole.
Crane originally filed 10 first-degree murder charges against Williams on June 3. A prosecutor may pursue a case through either direct charges or grand jury indictments. Crane declined to say why he chose to use the grand jury. "I don't want to discuss strategy," Crane said.
A preliminary hearing allows prosecutors to lay out their case and question witnesses. It also lets the defense cross-examine witnesses. A judge decides after a preliminary hearing whether there is probable cause to go ahead with the case.
Now, with the indictments, both sides will likely question witnesses through depositions prior to trial.
Authorities said Williams was a nurse for all 10 patients, who died between March and July 1992 at the Truman Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia. Crane has called Williams "the common denominator to each of these 10 patients," but has declined to discuss any alleged motive.
In all, 41 patients died in 1992 under Williams' care. While those deaths were deemed suspicious, usable tissue samples from 1993 exhumations remained from just 10 bodies, authorities said.
A recently developed tissue test found the presence of a paralyzing muscle relaxant in all 10 deaths.
Boone County officials received the test results from a private lab on May 7. By May 31, the Boone County medical examiner concluded the deaths were homicides.
Authorities said Williams had easy access to the drug, succinylcholine, which is used to stop natural respiration when mechanical breathing equipment takes over during surgery. But for the 10 deceased patients, there was no reason for the drug's presence.
Williams left the VA hospital in early 1994 and is no longer a nurse. Now a resident of St. Charles County, he was arrested at his clerical job with a restaurant company in St. Louis.