Dutch 'Angel of Death' is jailed for ward killings

Stephen Castle
Tuesday 25 March 2003 01:00 GMT
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A nurse who became known as the "Angel of Death" was jailed for life yesterday for the murder of four patients, including three children, in one of the biggest murder trials staged in the Netherlands.

Judges said that Lucy de Berk, 41, had been "calculating and refined" as she planned the deaths of three terminally ill children and an elderly woman at two hospitals in The Hague over four years.

The trial sent shock waves through the Netherlands, a country unfamiliar with serial killings, and one where the life sentence is rarely imposed.

The presiding judge, Jeanne Kalk, said De Berk's action had robbed relatives of a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones and disgraced the medical profession. She added: "Apparently she believed she was qualified to hold the power of life and death over these people."

De Berk, who denied the charges and swore that she "had never taken someone's life", was also convicted of three attempted murders, but acquitted of 11 other charges of murder or attempted murder.

Perhaps most shocking to a nation where euthanasia has been legalised was that De Berk often targeted children. "The victims were sick and helpless babies, whose parents entrusted them to the suspect's care as a nurse,'' said Judge Kalk. "She has gravely shamed the trust that society puts in hospitals and medical personnel."

De Berk threw her hands in the air in frustration after the sentence was read and glared at her lawyer. She stared briefly into the public gallery, packed with relatives of her victims, many of whom wore black.

The case has been widely publicised in the Netherlands, and in Canada, where De Berk spent years as a teenager with alcoholic parents, battling depression and working for a time as a prostitute in Vancouver.

During her trial, a statistician told the court that the chance of the deaths occurring on De Berk's shifts being a coincidence was one in 342 million. An FBI witness said that the nurse fitted the profile of a serial killer.

Relatives of a six-month-old victim, Amber Zuidewijk, cried as the judge described how a doctor found Amber in a stable condition one night but half an hour later she was discovered alone with De Berk, pulse racing. She turned blue-grey and died soon after.

The nurse had caused the victims' families "irreparable suffering and great grief, not only because they had to live without them, but also by denying them the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones in a fitting way".

Detailing the other convictions, judges cited forensic and circumstantial evidence, noting that the deaths of the three children fitted a pattern.

In each case, De Berk had told colleagues that the children were sicker than doctors thought, and was alone with them shortly before they died. Post-mortem examinations revealed potentially lethal levels of drugs in their blood.

Judges also cited entries from De Berk's diaries, in which she had written about a "strange compulsion'' and a secret that she would take with her to her grave.

Her lawyer, Ton Visser, said that De Berk would appeal against the ruling.

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