Nurse Convicted of Killing 28 Patients at Hospital in Germany

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 20, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Nurse Convicted of Killing 28 Patients at Hospital in Germany Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 20
, 2006

Kempten, Germany ( — A German nurse has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing 28 patients at a hospital he worked at in the southern part of the country. Stephan Letter was found guilty of 12 counts of murder, 15 counts of manslaughter and one count of illegal mercy killing.

Letter, who was nicknamed the "Angel of Death" in the German media had admitted to giving lethal injections to 16 elderly patients at a local hospital and was thought to have killed 12 more.

He eventually said he could not remember how many he had killed.

The presiding judge, Harry Rechner, said Letter "was interested, at best, superficially in the state of health of the patients."

According to the Associated Press, the court said Letter "killed patients with whom he was barely familiar, patients who had only been in the clinic for a few hours, or those who were on the road to recovery."

Rechner ruled that Letter could not be eligible for parole until 15 years into his sentence because of the severity of his crimes. He also put in place a permanent ban prohibiting Letter from ever working as a nurse again.

During the trial, Herbert Pollert, the lead prosecutor, said autopsies had been performed on 42 former patients at a hospital in the Bavarian town of Sonthofen.
The victims all died during the 17 months Stephan worked at the clinic and most of the patients were above the age of 75, though one was as young as 40.

The deaths didn’t raise any red flags at the medical facility because of the patients’ age, but concerns appeared when officials found medications had disappeared.

Stephan was finally arrested after authorities found some of the drugs at his home — an amount large enough to have killed 10 more patients. The nurse used a mixture of a sedative and muscle relaxant to kill the patients, and the drug cocktail would have taken only five minutes to induce death.

Stephan has told police he killed the people out of "compassion" for the elderly patients. But Wilhelm Seitz, an attorney for the victims’ families told AFP they didn’t want to die.

"One woman, who is originally from Spain, was discussing with her family that they would cook a paella when she came home and that they would go on holiday. That was the night before she was killed," he said.

He indicated one patient was killed in the moments when her daughter left her bedside and Stephan then attempted to console the woman when she returned to find her mother dead.

"He told her not to be angry with herself because her mother died alone," Seitz told AFP.

Albert Muelle, a lead police investigator, said the nurse claimed the patients’ deaths were all mercy killings. However, autopsy reports show at least six of the patients were not terminally ill, which prompted the murder charges in those cases.

Stephan’s attorney blames his actions on a difficult upbringing by an obsessive compulsive mother who forced him to repeated doctors visits.

Germany currently makes assisted suicide illegal and is punishable to between five months and six years in prison.

Eugen Brysch, president of the Deutsche Hospiz Stiftung, which runs a number of nursing homes like the one where Stephan worked, said there need to be reforms to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

"In such places where death is an everyday occurrence, death certificates are often issued too quickly and without much thought, citing causes like cardiac arrest, which mean very little," he told AFP.