A former Ohio doctor was acquitted of murder Wednesday after he was accused of hastening the deaths of 14 critically ill patients by ordering large doses of the powerful painkiller fentanyl.
William Husel faced one count of murder for each patient. He was found not guilty on all counts.
Upon Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Holbrook reading the verdict, Husel hugged one of his attorneys, Diane Menashe, who wiped away tears.
In a statement, Franklin County prosecutors said the case against Husel, 46, was “carefully tried and prepared” and that they accepted the jury’s decision.
Jurors deliberated over seven days in a trial that lasted about two months. It was one of the biggest cases of its kind against a health care professional in the U.S., tying together themes of medical treatment and ethics and what amount of opioids is suitable in end-of-life comfort care.
Husel, whose medical license was suspended in January 2019, faced life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years if he were found guilty of even one count of murder. The jury was also allowed to consider a lesser charge of attempted murder, which carries a sentence of several years in prison.
Jurors had to weigh whether Husel was acting as permitted under Ohio law when, prosecutors say, he ordered 10 times the amount of fentanyl that expert witnesses said was the norm in nonsurgical settings. Most of the ICU patients who received 1,000 micrograms of fentanyl were in their 70s and 80s and needed help breathing on ventilators, although a few were as young as their late 30s.
The patients, whom Husel treated from 2015 to 2018, were rushed to the Mount Carmel Health System in the Columbus area with a variety of ailments, including cancer, pneumonia and organ failure.
Prosecutors called more than 50 witnesses, including medical experts, family members of the patients who died and Husel’s former colleagues.
“Even if their death is assured as the sun is going to rise in the morning, if you hasten that along, you caused their death in the eyes of the law,” Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor David Zeyen said in closing arguments.
Husel’s defense team, led by high-profile attorney Jose Baez, argued that no maximum doses of fentanyl are considered illegal under state law and that his client was trying to give comfort care to people who were dying or near death.
“Why will this man risk his family, his career, 17 years of trying to be a doctor, every single thing he has worked for, to hasten someone’s death or to kill them?” Baez said.
Husel, who did not testify, has not spoken publicly or given media interviews since the allegations arose in a series of lawsuits families filed in early 2019.
Baez told reporters Wednesday following the verdict that he was “saddened” that Husel was charged in the first place and he took the case because of a belief that doctors have the right to take care of their patients’ pain accordingly.
“I think this was the only verdict that justice could have given,” said Baez, whose clients have included NFL player Aaron Hernandez, Florida mother Casey Anthony and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“This verdict speaks to not only William, but all of those doctors and nurses out there who are attempting their best to give comfort care in a very difficult situation,” he added. “They don’t need to be looking over their shoulders, wondering if they’re going to be charged with a crime.”
In the wake of the allegations against Husel in 2019, Mount Carmel’s CEO stepped down, after he said the hospital made “meaningful changes throughout the system,” and it fired almost two dozen employees, including nurses, physicians and members of the pharmacy management team.
Mount Carmel declined Wednesday to comment specifically on the trial, and said in a statement that “it’s never been our role to determine whether the defendant’s actions in these cases were criminal.”
A hospital spokesperson said that after discovering the amount of fentanyl Husel had ordered, Mount Carmel took action “regarding our concerns with the doses” and it shared the information with local authorities and families.
“We have extensive measures in place designed to prevent anything like this from ever happening again in our health system,” the spokesperson said.
About 35 families filed wrongful-death lawsuits against Husel, the hospital and other staff members; several of the families settled for a total of about $13.5 million.