German nurse on trial in relation to 29 patient deaths

A nurse facing murder and manslaughter charges went on trial today over the deaths of 29 patients in what has been described as the biggest series of killings in Germany since the end of the Second World War.

Stephan Letter, 27, could face life in prison if the Bavarian state court in Kempten convicts him on 16 counts of murder, 12 of manslaughter and one of mercy killing.

The deaths at the hospital in nearby Sonthofen, in the Bavarian Alps, began in February 2003, less than a month after the nurse started working there. The last suspect death occurred in July 2004.

Prosecutors say 17 female and 12 male patients aged between 40 and 94 died.

Most of the patients were older than 75, but they also included two gravely ill women aged 40 and 47, police said.

“He acted relatively indiscriminately and aimlessly,” said Wilhelm Seitz, a lawyer who is representing relatives of 11 of the dead as co-plaintiffs in the case. “Not all of the patients were seriously ill, and he had had no contact at all with some of them.”

The nurse is also charged with two counts of attempted manslaughter.

In one case, Letter allegedly gave an injection to a 22-year-old German soldier in hospital after she was slightly injured in a fall. She recovered and was able to leave the hospital after briefly losing consciousness.

At the time of his arrest in July 2004, the nurse admitted to some of the killings, saying he was trying to spare the patients senseless suffering, prosecutors have said. He has said he cannot remember the other cases.

Police say Letter used a mixture of the sedative midazolam, the anaesthetic etomidate and the muscle relaxant lysthenon to kill the patients.

Police tracked down the nurse as they investigated reports the drugs were missing and compared the times when patients died to the hours he worked. Investigators found unsealed vials of the medicines at his apartment.

Investigators checked more than 80 patient deaths that took place during the nurse’s tenure, exhumed more than 40 bodies and questioned more than 200 witnesses.

Kempten criminal police chief Albert Mueller described the case last year as “the biggest series of killings in post-war Germany”.

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