An Ohio doctor who had been accused of killing 14 patients with overdoses of fentanyl from 2014 to 2018 was acquitted on Wednesday by a county jury, bringing an end to one of the state’s largest murder cases, which set off a debate about end-of-life medical care.
The doctor, William Husel, 46, had been admired by his colleagues and patients at the Mount Carmel Health System, which is based in Columbus, after he started working there in 2013. Then, in June 2019, he was charged with 25 counts of murder.
In 2018, two hospital pharmacists reported to the Mount Carmel authorities that Dr. Husel had been prescribing unusually high doses of fentanyl.
When he treated patients, who were often gravely ill, he sometimes offered them “comfort medication,” which turned out to be fentanyl. One patient received a dosage 20 times higher than the amount recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, Franklin County prosecutors said.
Even a small dose of fentanyl can be fatal, as it is one of the most powerful opioids ever created and it is 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A pharmacist would prepare the fentanyl doses that Dr. Husel prescribed, and a nurse would administer them. Prosecutors said that he would convince the pharmacists that the high doses were necessary.
Dr. Husel’s trial, which began in February in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in Columbus, centered on one question: Was he a murderer or was he offering comfort to patients near death?
Franklin County prosecutors argued that the case was not about “comfort care” but about how the doctor abused sick people. Janet Grubb, a prosecutor, said in her opening argument that several of the patients in question were not sick enough to die.
“They all had one thing in common: William Husel was the nighttime I.C.U. physician,” she said, adding that he was not caught for years because the hospital pharmacy had little oversight.
Dr. Husel’s lawyer, Jose Baez, said in his opening argument that his client was a compassionate doctor who did not want his patients to be in pain.
“There’s no such thing as a medical murder case,” Mr. Baez said.
Mr. Baez has represented high-profile defendants including Casey Anthony, Aaron Hernandez and, for a time, Harvey Weinstein.
Dr. Husel’s motive was unclear, but prosecutors argued that he intended to murder his patients.
The hospital fired him in December 2018, and the state medical board later suspended his license to practice. In total, Mount Carmel found that 35 of his cases were suspicious.
He was acquitted on Wednesday of 14 counts of murder.
In January, a county judge dismissed 11 of the 25 murder charges after the prosecutors asked him to, according to court records. It was not clear why they made the request.
Dr. Husel’s actions reverberated throughout the Mount Carmel Health System. The chief executive resigned, and more than 20 employees were fired.
The health care and legal industries have debated for years how to treat patients who are dying. Opioids are widely used to alleviate pain in dying patients, but experts have said the drugs must be prescribed carefully. They are highly addictive and one of the leading causes of death for Americans under 55.