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Ex-VA Nurse Is Spared Death Penalty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 33-year-old former veterans hospital nurse was spared the death penalty Monday when a federal jury in Springfield, Mass., sentenced her to life in prison for the murder of four patients.

Convicted last week of fatally injecting the men with the heart stimulant epinephrine, Kristen Gilbert had been eligible for the death penalty because the crimes took place on federal property. Massachusetts is among 12 states that do not permit executions.

Had the federal jury sentenced her to death by lethal injection, Gilbert would have become the only woman on federal death row.

But her lawyers argued vehemently that a death sentence would have been devastating to Gilbert’s two young sons.

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“If you choose to kill Kristen Gilbert, which one of you will explain to her children why it had to be done?” her lawyer, David Hoose, had challenged the jury. Gilbert’s sons, ages 7 and 10, never appeared in the courtroom.

The boys are in their father’s custody. Glenn Gilbert, who testified that his former wife had tried to kill him by poisoning his food, declined to appear in court in support of her execution, as prosecutors had urged.

Assistant U.S. Atty. William Welch, who called the onetime nurse “a shell of a human being,” had argued for the harshest possible punishment.

“The guilt belongs at her feet,” Welch said in court last week. “And her sons belong with their loving father, who can and will take care of them in the years to come.”

Prosecutors said that Gilbert killed her patients because she enjoyed the drama of impending death.

An unusual number of fatalities occurred at the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Gilbert’s watch in 1995 and 1996. Fellow nurses reported to superiors that they suspected Gilbert was taking vials of epinephrine from a locked cabinet in the critical care unit where she worked. Some colleagues even dubbed her “the angel of death.”

Several veterans whom Gilbert treated testified that after she flushed their intravenous lines with an unknown substance, their hearts raced and their body temperatures soared--typical symptoms of epinephrine poisoning. Death by epinephrine is difficult to detect at autopsy.

Gilbert was convicted March 14 on three counts of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Her lawyers maintained that the men who died were either old, sick or both, and that their deaths were natural. The defense also made the point that there were no witnesses.

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Prosecutors asserted that Gilbert’s actions were linked to her troubled personal life. Her marriage had crumbled, they said, and her relationship with a hospital guard was tumultuous.

In 1998, while a grand jury was investigating the suspicious deaths, Gilbert was convicted of making phony bomb threats to the VA hospital. She served 15 months in a federal prison for that offense.

During the murder trial’s penalty phase, relatives of Gilbert’s victims were split on whether to impose capital punishment.

Her trial marked only the third time that a federal capital murder case had gone to trial in a state with no death penalty. None has ended in a death sentence.

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“In states with no death penalty,” said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, “you’re going to have jurors who are somewhat suspicious of the death penalty to start with.”

Dieter added that in a lengthy, high-profile trial such as Gilbert’s, a jury almost develops a relationship with the defendant. “It’s hard for a jury to vote for a death penalty if they know someone in some personal way,” he said. “The jurors know this is a person with children, a person with family. . . . They know she should never be released, perhaps, but killing her is a step they don’t want to take.”

In the last century, only two women have been executed by the federal government. Ethel Rosenberg was electrocuted with her husband, Julius, in June 1953 for conspiring to steal atomic bomb secrets. In December of the same year, Bonnie Brown Heady died in the Missouri gas chamber after she was convicted of murdering a 6-year-old boy.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh is scheduled to be put to death May 16, which would make him the first federal prisoner to be executed in 37 years. Twenty-three other inmates are on federal death row; four of those have had their sentences reversed but are awaiting final disposition of their cases.

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Hoose, a former president of an anti-death penalty organization, said Monday that he would appeal the sentence. “Where there is life, there is hope,” he said.


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