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Doctor Charged With Murder for Administering Heart-Stopping Drug

November 26, 1996

SEBRING, Fla. (AP) _ A doctor has been charged with first-degree murder for injecting a terminally ill patient with a mixture of drugs, including the chemical used by some states for executions.

A bond hearing will be held Wednesday for Dr. Ernesto Pinzon, who has pleaded innocent to the charge that carries a potential death sentence.

He has said he only wanted to end the dying man’s persistent pain, not to kill him.

But a grand jury found enough evidence Thursday to charge Pinzon, 36, with ``willful, premeditated and unjustified murder.″

Authorities arrested him as he prepared to catch a plane to Puerto Rico to visit relatives, his attorney said.

He was being held without bail at the Highlands County Jail. His lawyers planned to ask that a low bond be set at Wednesday’s hearing. Prosecutors haven’t said if they plan to seek the death penalty.

``But the prosecutors ... will probably want a million dollars. Those maniacs have him charged with murder one,″ said Roger Craig, one of Pinzon’s lawyers.

The charge arose from the Oct. 6 death of Rosario Gurrieri, a 70-year-old lung cancer patient at Highlands Regional Medical Center in Sebring. Pinzon gave Gurrieri morphine, Valium and then potassium chloride, which is sometimes used for executions.

Gurrieri died less than an hour later.

In handing down the indictment, the grand jury cited the testimony of a hospital nursing supervisor, who asked Pinzon why he gave his patient potassium chloride.

She said Pinzon had answered: ``It was to make the patient’s heart stop.″

The details of the report left Gurrieri’s widow in tears, her attorney said. Relatives wanted Pinzon to ease Gurrieri’s pain, not kill him, family attorney Louis Gonzalez said.

Hospital administrators reported Pinzon to authorities two days after Gurrieri’s death. State medical regulators issued an emergency order to suspend his license two weeks later.

Pinzon’s supporters contend he used a smaller dose that was not intended to kill the patient and _ at least in theory _ could make the morphine injections more effective.

Craig attributed the indictment to one-sided testimony. Pinzon did not testify, and other doctors sympathetic to him were not given a chance to make their case, Craig said today.

For his criminal trial, Pinzon retained attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who has successfully defended assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian in three assisted-suicide trials.

The issues here are different from Kevorkian’s cases, however.

The grand jury found no evidence that Gurrieri or his family asked Pinzon to give any medication to speed death.

Also, Pinzon has told state medical investigators he did not intend to kill his patient with the potassium chloride. In contrast, Kevorkian admitted his role in the assisted suicides after obtaining his patients’ consent.

``So there’s a strategic question, a little concern that people will start thinking Pinzon has a crusade″ if Fieger represents him in court, Craig said.

``Pinzon has no agenda. He’s not in that camp at all. He’s a young fellow, just starting out in life, who wants to cure people.″

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