Williams case leaves no clear explanations

The former nurse still has to overcome the stigma of the charges, his defense attorney says.
Sunday, August 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The decade-old investigation of mysterious patient deaths at Truman Veterans Hospital appears to have satisfied almost nobody.

Not Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane, who had to backtrack Wednesday with dismissal of all 10 counts of first-degree murder against former VA nurse Richard Williams. Newer science knocked down the lab results that led Crane to charge Williams with 10 counts of first-degree murder, punishable by the death penalty.

Not the relatives of the dead veterans who were buried in 1992 – only to be exhumed in 1993 – who had mostly lost hope for justice, only to be surprised by last year’s charges. They were further shocked and saddened by last week’s collapse of the case.

Not Gordon Christensen, the former VA doctor who first publicized the strange cluster of deaths on the hospital’s Ward 4 East, who now levels charges of “monumental incompetence” against the private crime laboratory that first found residue from a powerful muscle relaxer in all 10 bodies — only to call its own analyses into question this summer.

Not The Pennsylvania-based private crime lab, National Medical Services — which, despite apparent embarrassment about dismissal of charges it helped bring in the high-profile case, still declared Friday on its Web site: “We continually push the envelope of science to uncover answers where others fail.”

Perhaps the only person happy with the outcome is Richard Williams, who was suddenly freed from jail on Wednesday after the charges were dropped. Williams had been scheduled for trial in October.

But Williams’ public defender, Don Catlett, frets that his client will have to make a huge effort to start a new life, overcoming stigma of being charged with killing 10 people for whom he was supposed to be a caregiver.

Although Williams is a free man, charged with no crime, the cloud lingers.

Even after his release, news coverage still included file images of him in jail garb and handcuffs. And a federal judge ruled in a 1997 civil case against the VA that Williams was responsible for the deaths — an order upheld on appeal.

“It’ll be tough, very tough, and Richard knows that,” Catlett said Wednesday as Williams, 37, awaited an emotional reunion with his wife and their 3-year-old son.

When Melissa Williams and young Caleb showed up in the lobby of the public defender’s office, the beaming father reached out and drew the boy close.

Caleb looked at his father and then his mother and then his father again, with an expression more of wonder than familiarity.

“That’s daddy,” his mother whispered to the boy, who had, during the last third of his life, seen Williams in court wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, shackled at the wrists and ankles.

Crane dismissed the charges because subsequent tests by the FBI and National Medical Services found the unexplained presence of the residue in control samples of tissue meant to provide a standard for comparison.

“There was a long period when I didn’t file this, and people were mad about that, and now it’s back at the investigative stage again,” Crane said.

Robert Middleberg, National Medical Services’ lab director and a forensic toxicologist, sat alongside a glum-looking Crane during a news conference Thursday to help explain why the charges were dropped.

Middleberg promised “continued research on the issue.”

Christensen, the lab’s critic, said the research on control samples should have happened before charges were filed.

“This is something,” Middleberg said as Crane dejectedly buried his forehead in his hand, “that caught all of us in the scientific community a little off guard.”

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