Prosecutor to seek death penalty for accused nurse

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A prosecutor will ask for death by lethal injection if a former nurse is convicted of murdering 10 veterans hospital patients with doses of a paralyzing drug a decade ago.

A defense attorney responded Monday that she has seen no proof that anyone was murdered and attacked the prosecution case against Richard Allen Williams as circumstantial.

Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane announced he would seek the death penalty if he wins convictions for first-degree murder against Williams, 36, who formerly worked as a nurse at Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia.

Williams entered innocent pleas to the murder charges for a second time on Monday. He had pleaded innocent after his arrest in June when Crane first filed the charges.

Last week, Crane presented his case behind closed doors to a county grand jury, which then indicted Williams on 10 counts of first-degree murder. Williams' innocent plea Monday was in response to the indictment.

Circuit Judge Frank Conley is expected early next month to set tentative hearing dates.

Crane said he decided to seek the death penalty because the VA hospital deaths fit Missouri law's requirements -- including that the alleged crimes were "outrageous or wantonly vile ... in that they involved depravity of mind."

Williams' public defender, Kathryn Benson, told reporters she was surprised and disappointed about Crane's decision to seek the death penalty.

"There is not one shred of direct evidence in this case," Benson said. "It's based on a bunch of statistics that are incomplete."

Prosecutors and the FBI allege that Williams was the nurse on duty when all 10 patients were given doses of succinylcholine, a paralyzing muscle relaxant. None had been prescribed the drug.

The patients died between March and July 1992 at the Truman Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia.

"I have seen nothing to indicate that they were murdered," Benson said.

She said that a VA statistical analysis of patient deaths at the Columbia hospital was incomplete because it did not track all hospital staffers with patient care roles.

In all, 41 patients died in 1992 under Williams' care.

While those deaths were deemed suspicious at the time, usable tissue samples from 1993 exhumations remained from just 10 bodies, authorities said.

Crane said a recently developed tissue test found the presence of the muscle relaxant in all 10 deaths.

Benson said the test would be challenged by the defense.

Crane said he decided to seek the death penalty after conferring with at least one representative of each patient's family.

"They all approved of this step," Crane said.

David Havrum, whose father, Elzie Havrum, was among the 10 patients who died, told the Columbia Daily Tribune that "if they do a crime like that, they should expect to get" the death penalty.

Elzie Havrum,66, was admitted June 14, 1992, with shortness of breath. Family members left around midnight, reporting that he seemed OK.

Williams reported giving Havrum the antacid Mylanta at 1 a.m. June 15.

Medical experts concluded Havrum was given succinylcholine between 1 a.m. and 1:08 a.m.

The daughter of another patient said she didn't approve of Crane's decision to pursue capital punishment.

"I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't believe that my mom would," said Cindy Owens, daughter of veteran Agnes Conover. "I would prefer him to be in prison."

Conover, 69, was admitted to the hospital on July 27, 1992, with a history of diabetes and brain swelling. Conover's heart and lungs were noted to be fine upon admission.

Williams noted checking on Conover during 8:45 a.m. rounds on July 28 and calling for a doctor. Conover died after being briefly resuscitated. Medical experts say she was given succinylcholine between 8:49 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Williams left the VA hospital in early 1994 and is no longer a nurse. A resident of St. Charles County, he is being held without bond in the Boone County Jail.

Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, Williams shuffled into the courtroom with shackles restraining his feet and hands. Still, he attempted to wave to members of his family on the front row of spectator benches, and he smiled at his wife and toddler-age son.

Williams' relatives declined comment after the hearing.

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