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Monday, June 10, 2013

Donald Harvey: Angel of Death

     Note: This week the Smithsonian Network, as part of their series "Catching Killers," is airing an episode called "Cause of Death" which features cases showing the important role autopsies play in homicide investigations. One of the murders featured in "Cause of Death" is the Donald Harvey angel of death case in which the male nurse poisoned dozens of his patients. I appear in this episode which airs on the following dates: Monday, June 10: 8PM and 11PM; Tuesday, June 11: 5PM; Thursday, June 13: noon; and Saturday, June 15: 1AM. Below is a summary of the Donald Harvey serial murder case.

Donald Harvey: Angel of Death

     In 1975, after working briefly as a hospital orderly in London, Kentucky, 23-year-old Donald Harvey took a job with the Veteran's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the years passed, a pattern emerged. When Harvey was on duty, patients died. Finally, after ten years, and the deaths of more than 100 patients on his watch, the orderly was fired. He was terminated because several hospital workers suspected he was poisoning patients under his care. After Harvey left the medical facility, the death rate plummeted. Terminating Donal Harvey turned out to be good medicine, at least at the VA hospital.

     Shortly after his firing, Harvey was hired across town at Drake Memorial Hospital where the death rate began to soar. As he had done at the VA facility, Harvey was murdering patients by either lacing their food with arsenic, or injecting cyanide into their gastric tubes. The deaths at Drake, like those at the VA hospital, were ruled as naturally caused fatalities. While suspicions were aroused, it was hard to imagine that this friendly, helpful little man who was so charming and popular with members of his victims' families, could be a stone-cold killer.

     As clever and careful as Harvey was, he made a mistake when he poisoned John Powell, a patient recovering from a motorcycle accident. Under Ohio law, victims of fatal traffic accidents must be autopsied. At Powell's autopsy, an assistant detected the odor of almonds, the telltale sign of cyanide. This was fortunate because most people are unable to detect this scent. The forensic pathologist ordered toxicological tests that revealed that John Powell had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. Donald Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and John Powell would be the last person he would murder.

     The Cincinnati police arrested Harvey, and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide, and books on poisoning. Notwithstanding this evidence, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted, he would be sentenced to death. So Harvey and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence, Donald Harvey would confess to all of the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days, he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients.

     When asked why had he murdered all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic psychologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life. 

1 comment:

  1. In the second paragraph, there appears to be an error/typo about Harvey's employment. Donald Harvey was hired at the VA Hospital in LEXINGTON, Ky., not in Cincinnati. You can read a detailed psyche report from Radford University in Virginia (Department of Psychology) here:,%20Donald%20-%20fall,%202005.pdf