A former respiratory therapist charged with murdering two patients decades ago now has a new attorney, and the defense lawyer claims the recently filed charges are built on sand.
“This is a case based on a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking,” Molly Hastings told KTVI in a Tuesday interview about her view of the state’s case against client Jennifer Anne Hall.
Hall, 42, was first charged in May 2022 for allegedly poisoning patient Fern Franco, 75, to death in May 2002 with the muscle relaxant succinylcholine. Experts in medical serial killers determined the victim’s death was homicide. Then, last week, authorities charged her with murdering patient David Wesley Harper, 37. As in the other case, the victim died in 2002, authorities claim that Hall used succinylcholine.
The drug can kill people by paralyzing the diaphragmatic muscles and causing asphyxiation.
The patients were located at the Hedrick Medical Center in the city of Chillicothe, Missouri. Authorities said the facility saw an alarming rise in cardiac collapse incidents—18—while Hall worked there as a respiratory therapist from December 2001 to May 2002. Nine patients died, including Franco and Harper. Nursing staff apparently believed Hall was responsible for the patient deaths because she had access to the patients and the potentially deadly drugs. Her discovery and method of telling staff of every person’s cardiac emergency was also noticed, according to investigators.
Hall, however, long maintained her innocence.
“Never,” she told The Kansas City Star in 2015 denying claims she harmed patients. “No, never.”
“My name is just thrown out there, and it’s for horrifying reasons,” Hall said.
Hastings, for her part, maintained her client’s presumed innocence.
“We have entered a plea of not guilty on all counts, and look forward to the opportunity to defend her against each and every one of these allegations,” Hastings told Law&Crime on Wednesday.
She said there was no new evidence in the case. Over the years, multiple prosecutors reviewed the same investigation and declined to file charges. The only thing that was different is that there was now a different prosecutor reviewing the case, she said. There is no new revelation to explain the charges, she said.
“I really don’t know why they elected to file now,” she said. “Again, it’s not based on new evidence.”
She said it was the prosecutor’s prerogative to file charges, but she questioned why it would take so long for the office to file the Harper case after the Franco charge if they were both linked.
“Filing a case and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt are very different things,” she said.
Hall’s longtime attorney Matthew O’Connor, who passed the case to Hastings because he retired, previously said the Franco case was based on “conjecture and speculation.” He also said that Hall was wrongfully convicted before in connection with a hospital fire.
“This case is based on the hindsight of people looking at issues in their own hospital and when Ms. Hall’s prior wrongful conviction came to their attention, they started pushing pieces toward her,” he told KCUR in a May 9, 2022 report. “They’ve tried for years to find evidence and it didn’t even rise to the level of a civil case, which is a much lower standard. The Missouri Supreme Court has thrown this case out at a civil level.”
O’Connor maintained his client did not have access to the drugs found in Franco’s body.
By “prior wrongful conviction,” the lawyer was referencing how Hall was convicted in 2001 of setting a fire at another hospital, the Cass County Medical Center in Harrisonville, Missouri. She served a year in prison in beginning in June 2003. Her new representation in that case, however, argued that her trial lawyer failed to look into alternative causes for the fire, which caused $23,000 in damages. A defense expert determined the real cause of the incident was an old clock experiencing an electrical short in a cord. The defense successfully appealed on grounds of ineffective counsel, and her 2005 retrial ended in acquittal.
“They have no confession,” Hastings told KTVI of the recent murder charges. “They have a lot of folks kind of looking backwards and making assumptions, but I think that there is definitely a lot to work with from a criminal defense perspective.”
Jerry Lambe and Matt Naham contributed to this report.
Note: We added more information from Hastings after speaking to her in a phone interview.
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