Johnson County woman will stand trial for woman’s 2002 death in Missouri hospital

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An attorney for Jennifer Anne Hall said there was “nothing new” presented at a preliminary hearing Tuesday for the Johnson County woman accused of killing a hospital patient 20 years ago.

Defense attorney Molly Hastings argued in the hearing that the prosecution’s case was largely circumstantial and built on hearsay. Nonetheless, the judge said there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Hall was bound over for trial on one count of first-degree murder for allegedly killing one of her patients while working at a Chillicothe hospital.

Hall next’s court appearance is set for Sept. 8.

Then a 21-year-old respiratory therapist, Hall is accused of killing 75-year-old Fern Franco at Hedrick Medical Center with a lethal combination of medications that caused Franco to suffocate in the early morning hours of May 18, 2002.

Franco’s was the last of nine suspicious deaths to have occurred at Hedrick during the five months Hall worked there.

When she died in 2002, Fern Franco was buried in Edgewood Cemetery in Chillicothe, Missouri. She was being cared for at Hedrick Medical Center when she died and is one of nine suspicious deaths that occurred there that police say may be linked to former respiratory therapist Jennifer Hall. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com
When she died in 2002, Fern Franco was buried in Edgewood Cemetery in Chillicothe, Missouri. She was being cared for at Hedrick Medical Center when she died and is one of nine suspicious deaths that occurred there that police say may be linked to former respiratory therapist Jennifer Hall. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

But no evidence was presented at Hall’s preliminary hearing at the Livingston County Courthouse directly linking Hall to the deaths of Franco or any of the others.

Seven witnesses gave testimony: Franco’s doctor, three people who had worked with Hall at Hedrick, the county coroner, a toxicologist and the investigating officer.

None of their testimony was new to anyone who has been following developments in the investigation into Hall’s alleged involvement in the deaths of Franco and the others.

“There is nothing new,” Hastings said after her client’s two-hour hearing before associate circuit court Judge Michael Leamer. “I do not see anything substantively that moves the needle.”

Allegations linking Hall to the deaths of hospital patients first surfaced publicly in a series of wrongful death lawsuits a decade ago.

She wasn’t a defendant in those civil cases brought against the hospital by relatives of the people who died while under Hall’s care. But she was named in the lawsuits as the person suspected of killing their loved ones because she allegedly enjoyed the excitement that ensued when a patient stopped breathing and a code blue was called.

However, state and local prosecutors believed they lacked sufficient evidence to charge her. Scott Lindley, the county coroner who has pursued the case since Franco’s 2002 autopsy, testified Tuesday that he was blocked by a judge from holding his own inquest.

Adam Warren, the current county prosecutor, reopened the case in 2012, after which the investigation again slowed until Chillicothe police officer Brian Schmidt began taking another look at the evidence in 2020.

Schmidt testified at the hearing that he also re-interviewed some of the witnesses before Hall was charged this May in connection with Franco’s death.

The Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe was the site of nine unusual patient deaths while Jennifer Hall worked as a respiratory therapist there from December 2001 to May 2002. The building has since been demolished. 2014 file photo/The Kansas City Star
The Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe was the site of nine unusual patient deaths while Jennifer Hall worked as a respiratory therapist there from December 2001 to May 2002. The building has since been demolished. 2014 file photo/The Kansas City Star

A nurse who was working the night shift at the hospital when Franco died said Tuesday she saw Hall enter Franco’s room alone 40 minutes before she was found dead. That was unusual, Jennifer Arp, the former nurse testified.

Respiratory therapists were instructed to coordinate their visits with the nursing staff so that patients weren’t disturbed as much, Arp and a former Hedrick nursing supervisor said.

But under Hastings’ questioning, Arp acknowledged that she failed to mention Hall’s solitary visit when she was interviewed by investigators a decade ago. Arp also acknowledged that she has had multiple head injuries since then and has ”memory issues.”

Hastings made several attempts to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by pointing out that the supposed rash of code blues that coincided with Hall’s time at Hedrick was not that unusual.

Several occurred after she was fired around the time of Franco’s death, Hastings said.