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A federal jury convicted Stella Nickell Monday of lacing...

By
CYNTHIA FLASH

SEATTLE -- A federal jury convicted Stella Nickell Monday of lacing pain relief capsules with cyanide, killing her husband and a random victim, in the nation's first fatal consumer product tampering trial.

The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated 26 hours over five days before convicting Nickell on five counts of violating federal consumer product tampering laws that were adopted as a result of the unsolved 1982 poisoned Tylenol killings of seven people in the Chicago area.

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Prosecutors said Nickell tried to copy the Tylenol murders when she poisoned her husband Bruce in 1986 and put cyanide-laced painkillers on store shelves to make it appear he was the victim of a random killer and thereby increase her life insurance benefits.

Sue Snow, a woman Nickell did not know, died from the tainted Extra-Strength Excedrin, and the case may never have been solved if Nickell had not come forward two days after her death to tell authorities Bruce Nickell, who had been buried, also may have been poisoned.

The deaths prompted a national recall of Excedrin capsules by the Bristol-Myers Co., and federal regulations for 'tamper-proof' packaging, including at least two methods of sealing over-the-counter pain pills.

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Nickell, who last week was described by her lawyer as 'very nervous,' sat silently with her eyes downcast as the five guilty verdicts were read. Her lawyer, who had called the government's case as overly circumstantial, declined comment after the verdict.

'It took us a long time to review all the testimony and get a unanimous decision,' jury foreman Murray Andrews said. 'But the evidence shows she is guilty. It was a draining experience for all of us because we had to be sure everyone was totally convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.'

The jury had declared itself deadlocked Friday, Andrews said, because in three votes the result had been 11-1 for conviction with the one person -- whom he would not identify -- refusing to budge.

Nickell, 44, faces up to life in prison on the two federal counts involving death and up to 10 years on each of three other counts of product-tampering when she is sentenced June 17. She is being held without bail.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said his office would wait until after Nickell's sentencing to announce whether it would file murder charges against her. Washington has the death penalty.

Nickell was accused of spiking over-the-counter Extra-Strength Excedrin with cyanide to kill her husband, Bruce, 52, June 6, 1986, and putting contaminated bottles of painkiller on store shelves in the Seattle suburb of Auburn.

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Prosecutors contend one bottle was purchased by Snow, 40, an Auburn, Wash., bank manager who died June 11, 1986, after taking contaminated Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules.

An autopsy on Bruce Nickell originally concluded he died of emphysema, but after Stella Nickell insisted he had taken Excredin capsules from a bottle with the same lot number as Snow's, tests found cyanide in his tissue.

Nickell was accused of killing her husband to escape an unhappy, debt-ridden marriage and collect $176,000 in life insurance benefits, $100,000 more than she would have received if his death was attributed to natural causes.

Snow's husband, Paul Webking, told a Seattle television station he thought the investigation could have been handled better.

'The effect of the verdict is secondary to the fact that Sue is dead,' he said. 'I think if they had been more careful with Bruce Nickell's autopsy, Sue would be alive today.

'I thought they were rather casual after they discovered Sue died from cyanide poisoning. It took them three days to start the investigation.'

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Maida said she would ask for 'an appropriately severe sentence.'

'I'm very, very pleased,' she said. 'It sends a message to other tamperers. It is definitely a strong case for product tampering (laws).

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'I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever (about the verdict), but it was a tough, circumstantial case for a group of lay people to decide.'

The verdict came just hours after one juror, Laurel Holliday, informed the court she received an anonymous call Friday night from a woman who told her Nickell failed a lie detector test. The fact Nickell failed an FBI polygraph test was not admitted into evidence.

U.S. District Judge William Dwyer ruled Holliday could continue the deliberations, in part because of a request by Nickell and her lawyer, federal public defender Thomas Hillier, that she be allowed to remain.

Dwyer's decision to let Holliday remain came over the objections of Maida, who had asked that deliberations begin anew with an alternate juror.

The prosecution's key witness was Nickell's daughter, Cynthia Hamilton, who testified her mother plotted for years to kill her husband, concocting plans that included hiring a hit man and poisoning his ice tea with cocaine.

But Hamilton admitted she did not tell investigators of her suspicions when first questioned. Hamilton said she decided to come forward only after learning her mother failed the FBI lie detector test in December 1986.

Andrews, said the hold-out juror was uncertain -- until the weekend - about the proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the fact Hamilton took so long to come forward with the information that led to her mother's arrest in December 1987.

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'Cindy's testimony was obviously the key that brought things together,' he said. 'Without her testimony there was too much missing evidence.'

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