Navy Surgeon Gets 4-Year Term in Deaths

From Times Wire Services

Navy surgeon Donal M. Billig, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and homicide in the deaths of three patients at Bethesda Naval Hospital, was sentenced Monday to four years in prison and ordered dismissed from the service.

In addition, the court-martial board of nine naval officers ordered Billig, a Navy commander who served as chief of heart surgery at Bethesda, to forfeit all future pay and allowances.

Billig showed no emotion as the presiding officer, Rear Adm. Harry S. Quast, read the sentence. The board had deliberated for 90 minutes and could have returned a sentence of up to 11 1/2 years.

Taken Into Custody

Billig, 55, waived his option of seeking a deferral of his sentence and was taken into custody immediately. He was held overnight at the Marine base at Quantico, Va., and was to be transferred to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth, Kan., where he will serve his sentence.

Billig, who loses his annual $66,089 salary, is eligible for parole in 16 months.

The surgeon, who was accused of being responsible for the deaths of five patients, was found guilty last Wednesday of two counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of negligent homicide and 18 counts of dereliction of duty stemming from operations in 1983 and 1984.

Monday's hearing was to consider evidence presented by the prosecution and defense that might have a bearing on the sentencing.

His conviction is subject to automatic review by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review and may be appealed to the Court of Military Appeals and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pleaded for Freedom

Earlier Monday, Billig, who is nearly sightless in one eye, pleaded for his freedom before the court-martial, saying that the end of his career as a heart surgeon is "punishment of a severity I don't ever think I can describe."

The prosecutor, Marine Col. Gerald Miller, urged the board to sentence Billig to at least half the maximum, or close to six years, saying that, without a prison term, Billig may try to practice again.

Defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Baker urged against a prison sentence, saying Billig is "already a broken man," with his career ruined and no hope of practicing medicine again.

A two-thirds vote of the board was required to decide on a sentence, or a three-quarters vote in the case of a prison term of more than 10 years.

Both sides sent several witnesses to the stand to describe Billig's work and character in the sentencing hearing, including Billig's former wife for the prosecution and his current wife for the defense.

The commanding officer of Bethesda also took the stand, to complain that publicity about Billig had hurt the reputation of the hospital and its surgeons.

"The hospital finds itself on trial as well as Dr. Billig," said Capt. Stephen Amis, who quoted critical stories about naval medicine that ran in various publications.

Also testifying were the wives and children of three patients who died during or after surgery by Billig.

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