Salt Lake City psychiatrist Robert Weitzel's legal ordeal is over. Last Friday, an eight-person jury took only 90 minutes to deliver acquittals on all counts of killing five geriatric patients with morphine overdoses. Weitzel had been convicted in an earlier trial and served six months in prison before he was released after a Utah judge ruled that prosecutors had engaged in misconduct by not informing Weitzel's attorneys of expert testimony that vindicated his medical conduct. "I'm very grateful the jury saw it sensibly, that the judge was fair, that my attorneys were exemplary and that the medical community supported me," Weitzel told the Deseret News after the verdict was announced.
The case drew national attention as it pitted modern principles of pain management against prohibitionist prosecutors, who attempted to portray Weitzel as a drug-addled murderer. At issue were the treatment and subsequent deaths of five mentally and terminally ill geriatric patients under Weitzel's care in 1995 and 1996. But Weitzel has passed hundreds of drug tests, and medical expert after medical expert testified in his defense during the trial.
The most powerful testimony came from Dr. Perry Fine, a nationally recognized expert on pain management and end-of-life care. It was Fine's opinions that prosecutors hid from the defense during Weitzel's first trial. Fine explained to the jury how pain management worked and why it was appropriate for the patients in question. "To condemn these actions taken by Dr. Weitzel would have condemned these patients to horrible deaths," he told the jury. Fine testified that the five patients had died from the progression of their pre-existing medical conditions, not from drugs prescribed by Weitzel.
But Fine was only one of a string of expert witnesses who demolished the prosecution's case. For nearly a week, doctor after doctor described Weitzel's treatment as well within medical standards. Their performance made defense attorney Walter Bugden's job all the easier.
While prosecutors attempted to portray Weitzel as reckless and negligent, Bugden insisted in closing arguments that his care was proper and that the prosecution did not understand patients' pain. "It was end-of-life care, it was comfort care," he said. "Dr. Weitzel was honoring the end-of-life directives" of patients and their families. "We all have a right to choose comfort," he said. "Physicians are obligated -- obligated -- to honor those wishes." The patients were not victims of Weitzel, said Bugden. "They were just victims of their diseases."
Although the medical community was slow to support Weitzel at first, by the time of his second trial the Utah Medical Association had passed a resolution clearly inspired by his case urging prosecutors not to interfere in the lawful practice of medicine. "The one good thing that has come out of all this is that people are more concerned with care at the end of life and prescribing properly for pain control," UMA spokesman Kevin Fotheringham told the Deseret News after the verdict.
But while Weitzel's legal problems are behind him, he still has a date with a federal penitentiary in less than two weeks. On the advice of an attorney he told DRCNet he now regrets having listened to, Weitzel earlier this year pled guilty to a federal count of prescription drug fraud. That charge arose after DEA agents raided his offices after his arrest by Utah authorities. They found that Weitzel's record-keeping was shoddy and that he could not account for a small number of vials of morphine. Under the terms of the plea bargain, Weitzel must report to prison within 15 days from the end of his just finished trial. While the typical penalty for such a charge does not involve jail time, Weitzel was sentenced to a shocking, perhaps politically motivated one year term.
Weitzel told the Deseret News that after he serves his time he will seek to get his medical license reinstated, and he intends to focus on prison psychiatry and prison hospice care. "There is a huge need for it in that population," said Weitzel, who has already had a six-month taste of life behind bars at Point-of-the-Mountain, the Utah state prison.
Weitzel is also getting the hell out of Utah.
Visit http://www.weitzelcharts.com for further information on the Weitzel case.