French `angel of mercy' is charged with murder

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WHEN SHE first admitted she had killed 30 people, Christine Malevre received 5,000 letters of support and a book contract. She became a heroine to many people in France. Even the health minister spoke sympathetically about her. An Internet site was created in her honour.

Ms Malevre, 29, a nurse specialising in the care of the terminally ill, said she "accompanied" her victims to death, because it would have been "inhuman" to do otherwise. Her confession launched an agonised but intelligent debate about euthanasia. Although she was placed under formal investigation for manslaughter, most press and public opinion took her side.

Eleven months later an investigating judge has upgraded the accusation against Ms Malevre from manslaughter to premeditated murder. Two separate psychiatric reports have found her to be "a person without true compassion", a person with a megalomanic desire to be in "a position of power" over her patients. Colleagues at a hospital in Mantes-la-Jolie, 40 miles west of Paris, spoke of her morbid obsession with serious illness and death. A statistical study found that a patient had three times more chance of dying when Ms Malevre was on duty.

Olivier Morice, a lawyer representing relatives of five of her victims, described her as a "serial killer ... not a madonna. She bluffed many people but now it's all over." Her own lawyers say she sticks by her original story, although now she admits to killing only three people, not 30.

Ms Malevre says she responded only to the demands of her patients or their relatives. She claims to have shortened the suffering of the dying in a hospital and a French health system where insufficient consideration was given to treatment of the terminally ill. In an interview with the paper Le Parisien in July she said: "It would have been inhuman to have allowed the kind of suffering I witnessed. People accuse me of being too human but, in my profession, you can't be too human."

Her confession was the first of its kind in France and produced a cascade of admissions from other nurses and doctors. The Health Minister, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor, hinted he had been faced with similar distressing choices and had made similar decisions. "We should not make hasty moral judgements. I would not want this nurse to feel that she is alone."

Attitudes to Ms Malevre began to change in March, when she published a book - Mes Aveux (My confessions) - in which she described the anguish of dying patients in what many people found to be excessive detail. In April she was briefly rearrested and jailed.

Her lawyers said the judicial system had been urged to take a harsher line with the nurse because she had embarrassed the French state. Given the sympathetic comments of the health minister, the accusation fell rather flat.

The lawyers also complained, more reasonably, that details of her supposedly confidential psychiatric reports had been leaked to the press. One report said she had a "fascination for working with patients at the end of their life ... because this situation allowed her to exercise her megalomania ... without any understanding of the seriousness of her actions."

Ms Malevre is on bail awaiting a probable trial. In the meantime she is retraining as a beautician.