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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Jailed Missouri Nurse Freed; Murder Charges Dropped

Aired August 7, 2003 - 19:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, in Missouri now, Richard Williams is spending his first night out of jail in 13 months after a Boone County prosecutor said he had no choice but to drop 10 first- degree murder charges. It seemed lab tests could not provide the evidence the prosecution needs to take Williams to trial. Ten veterans died at a V.A. hospital in Columbia back in 1992 where Williams worked as a nurse. Prosecutors say all 10 had a powerful muscle relaxant in their system, but the drug was not prescribed for them.
Now, all along, our next guest has maintained his client's innocence. Richard Williams, for one, has maintained his own innocence but the prosecutor says he has the right man, he just needs a way to provide it.

We're joined now by Williams' attorney, Don Catlett. He joins us now from Columbia, Missouri.

Thanks very much for being with us, Don.

First of all, how did your client react -- I mean, it may be a stupid question -- but how did he react when you told him the news that he was getting out of jail?

DON CATLETT, RICHARD WILLIAMS' ATTORNEY: Well, he was actually informed by the jailers yesterday and I went out to pick him up at the jail yesterday morning. When he came out of the jail he was practically white, shaking, and his response was, Is this true? Is this really happening? Am I free?

COOPER: Now were you ready to go to trial with this thing and what was your defense going to be?

CATLETT: Well, we knew there were problems with the testing that occurred that had indicated this muscle relaxant was in the system of these samples. These samples were taken in 1993 after the bodies had been buried and exhumed and then the samples weren't tested until 2002, when this new process was developed by National Medical's lab services in Pennsylvania.

COOPER: And I guess what they found is that, yes, the muscle relaxant was present but it was present in the control samples as well, meaning that this muscle relaxant is actually present in all these samples, and therefore, they couldn't prove that it was -- it had been there or placed there by someone else. CATLETT: That's correct. The samples -- they were finding very, very small trace amount of a metabolitzer, excitocoline (ph), which is what excitocoline breaks down into -- they were finding very small trace amount of it. National Medical Services made the finding back in 2002 that that indicated he had been given the muscle relaxant prior to death, that these individuals had.

COOPER: Now, I know they're..

CATLETT: And made this thing...

COOPER: Sorry, go ahead.

CATLETT: Excuse me.

They made the same finding in a case in Florida and the Florida appellate courts had thrown the finding out based on the unreliable -- unreliability of the science, so we were hopeful that we would be able to establish that in Missouri also.

COOPER: But you were completely surprised when you got the call, I guess, the day before your client, saying..

CATLETT: Completely.

COOPER: Yes.

There was a civil suit brought by the relatives of one person who died against the hospital where this person died. And the judge in that suit did say that the evidence did seem to indicate your client had some sort of role if the death. There's also now a statement we have from the D.A. and also the assistant inspector general.

Want to play this for our viewers. Let's see what they had to say about the case.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We continue to consider this case an open investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN PETROLE, INSPECTOR GEN., VETERANS AFFAIRS: If I didn't believe that Richard Williams murdered these victims, I wouldn't have filed the charges.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Do you think your client is free and clear -- I mean -- is Richard Williams -- do you think there's a good chance he's going to be brought back into court?

CATLETT: Well, there is no statute of limitations on first degree murder, so that possibility always rests out there.

But the civil case you were talking about, the theory put forth at that time back in '97 was that codine caused the death of that particular individual, and now they came up with succineal choline (ph) in 2002 and that result has now been found to be unreliable, so right now they have absolutely no scientific evidence that establishes a cause of death other than natural causes.

These 10 veterans were all very ill people. Most of them had multiple serious diseases, metastatic (ph) cancers, emphysema, and they were in the hospital. And right now, there's no evidence that anything other than natural causes was the cause of death.

COOPER: All right, Don Catlett, appreciate you joining us talking about your client, Richard Williams, who is a free man tonight with his family and we'll be following this case. Thanks very much.

CATLETT: You bet.

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