10:00am: Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval

Sentencing may not reveal motive in killings of West Virginia veterans

Families of veterans killed while seeking healthcare at a West Virginia veterans hospital may receive some catharsis this week.

The criminal sentencing is 9 a.m. Tuesday for Reta Mays, the former hospital aide who has pleaded guilt in killing veterans by injecting them with lethal doses of insulin while she worked the overnight shift. The sentencing will be in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg.

Tony O’Dell

“I do believe they hope to hear what her motive is. I don’t know that family members are truly going to believe what she says,” said attorney Tony O’Dell, who represents several families in civil suits contending the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t do enough to protect the victims.

Although Mays has pleaded guilty, she has never publicly described any motive.

Her defense attorneys in a previous status hearing were focused on gathering records about Mays’ mental health dating back to her 2003 deployment to Iraq, where she was a chemical equipment repairer with the West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion.

“I believe we’re going to hear that it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, but we have a lot of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder who don’t murder people,” O’Dell said.

Mays is likely to spend the rest of her life in jail.

“I don’t think there’s any chance this woman will ever see the light of day,” O’Dell said.

HOPPY KERCHEVAL: Questions Linger as Reta Mays Faces Sentencing for VA Murders

Sentencing has been scheduled for both Tuesday and Wednesday, but lawyers have said they will need much less time than that. During an earlier status hearing, lawyers for both sides agreed the presentations that are part of sentencing would probably take only a few hours.

A sentencing memorandum from defense attorneys to the judge has been submitted already, but it is sealed to the public.

During a Friday status conference, participants in the case described a late addendum that would not affect sentencing but that might affect how the Bureau of Prisons handles what happens after that. For nearly a year, she has been held at West Virginia’s Northern Regional Jail.

The defense attorneys for Mays are working to present mitigating factors in the case. Mays faces consecutive life terms for seven murder counts and another 20 years for a count of assault with attempt to murder.

Prosecutors said they may present short testimony from as many as a dozen family members who are grieving the deaths that Mays is accused of causing.

Federal prosecutors said those witnesses are likely to speak for about five minutes each. Many are likely to appear in person, although a few may use video. During Friday’s status conference, the judge said one such video needs review and may need to have a section removed.

“The video is particularly problematic,” said Jay McCamic, an attorney for Mays. “It will become a rallying cry.”

Mays, 46, of Harrison County, entered a guilty plea last July 14 to seven counts of murder and another count of assault with attempt to murder. Prosecutors said the last charge was because the victim lived for a period of time and Mays’ actions could not be determined to be the exact cause when the veteran died weeks later.

“The one common thread that runs through all the families that I’ve represented has been just this tremendous feeling of betrayal that these families will carry with them the rest of their lives,” O’Dell said.

“Even though there’s no rational reason for guilt, there’s an emotional feeling of guilt from these families. It’s something that weighs on them. They very much want her to get the max. They want to make sure she’s in jail the rest of her life.”

Mays began working at the Louis A Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg in June 2015. She was removed from her job in July 2018.

She worked the night shift, 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. in Ward 3A, which housed fragile patients who were not well enough to be discharged but whose conditions did not require the intensive care unit.

Her job as a nursing assistant required her to measure patients’ vital signs, test blood glucose levels and sit one-on-one with patients who required observation.

Autopsies on exhumed bodies have pointed to insulin injections that weren’t needed. The veterans died of low blood sugar level — severe hypoglycemia — caused by the insulin shots.

She admitted to killing veterans Robert Edge Sr.Robert KozulArchie EdgellGeorge Shaw, a patient identified only as W.A.H., Felix McDermott and Raymond Golden. She is also accused of administering insulin to “R.R.P.,” another patient who was not diabetic, with intent to kill him.

The charges and plea followed a two-year investigation that began after the VA Medical Center reported several suspicious deaths. Mays had access to the veterans’ hospital rooms. She wasn’t supposed to have access to insulin.

During a plea hearing last July 14, Mays answered question after question about her understanding of the agreement and whether she had been unduly influenced in any way. Without making the agreement, she could have faced a trial and the possibility of the death penalty.

“Did you in fact do what they say you did?” asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Kleeh.

Mays answered just as she had to prior questions, “Yes sir.”

But she did not answer beyond that to say why.

Bill Powell

That day, the chief federal prosecutor for northern West Virginia acknowledged the question of why she committed those acts may never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

“Million dollar question. She never told us why she did it,” said Bill Powell, who was the U.S. Attorney for the district at the time, adding that Mays denied the killings right up until she signed a plea agreement.

“Obviously families want to know. I’m curious to know. But I’m not sure anyone’s going to walk away satisfied in the end.”

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