Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angel of Death: The Donald Harvey Story

Book Review: Defending Harvey

by Katherine Ramsland

Book cover: Defending Donald Harvey
Book cover: Defending Donald Harvey
The odd thing about William Whalen's new book describing his relationship with killer nurse Donald Harvey is that while he's ambivalent about the way Harvey has long fed on publicity, he's also giving him this chance to "tell his story."  Actually, Defending Donald Harvey (Emmis Books) is largely Whalen's story.  He was Harvey's defense attorney, and one might easily question the ethics of some of his decisions.  For example, after the first murder came to light, he urged a suspicious reporter to "keep digging" and decided that since Harvey had confessed to him a number of hospital murders, he needed to protect society rather than attempt to get his client off.  He justifies that, hoping to get readers to sympathize with his difficult position, and many will.  Nevertheless, there are several situations throughout this case in which Whalen seems less concerned with the demands of our justice system than with his personal issues.  And, surprisingly, he remained friends with Harvey after his part was done.  It's difficult to know, when all is said and done, what he really thinks about Harvey: Sometimes this serial killer is a monster, sometimes merely a pathetic human being.

The story is familiar to anyone who knows about healthcare serial killers, so there's not much new here.  Even the reporter, Pat Minarcin, who broke the story and who adds an "Afterword," merely repeats most of what Whalen says.  Since there has been no other book on Harvey, this is a good addition to the extant literature on serial killers, but otherwise there seems little justification for retelling Harvey's story at this time.

Harvey was caught when an autopsy revealed a toxin in the body of a male patient, John Powell, and at the time, no one put much effort into considering that he may have caused other deaths as well.  It was Harvey himself who started the momentum by confessing to his public defender, who then urged Minarcin to find a way to dig up evidence.  Harvey told Whalen that he had lost count of how many people he'd killed (including people outside the hospital), but that it had not been more then seventy.  In the end, says Whalen, he was convicted of thirty-six murders and one charge of manslaughter, although beyond the official tally there were clearly many more victims.


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