Robert Diaz

Riverside County, California
Date of Alleged Crimes:  April 1981

Robert Rubane Diaz was sentenced to death for the murders of 12 hospital patients.  In early 1981, Community Hospital of the Valleys in Perris, California experienced an abnormally large number of deaths among its most elderly patients.  To gather evidence, the coroner exhumed or intercepted all the patients who had recently died and he collected tissue samples from them.  The coroner found that 11 patients had a supposedly lethal level of the heart drug lidocaine in their system.  Investigators focused on Diaz, a male nurse, who worked at the hospital during many of the deaths.  They also investigated his previous employment and came up with a 12th patient from another hospital whose exhumed body showed a supposedly lethal level of lidocaine.

High levels of lidocaine were not necessarily indicative of poisoning as hospital staff used the popular drug liberally on its patients.  There was no direct evidence against Diaz.  No one had seen him inject a patient with a fatal dose of anything.  He had no apparent motive to kill anyone.  An alleged “smoking gun” syringe filled with an especially high solution of lidocaine was found hidden in the Valleys hospital 7 months after it closed.  It fit the prosecution's theory of how the alleged murders occurred.  However, it appears to have been planted.

After Diaz's arrest, investigators from the public defender's office found that the hospital's care was abominable.  It was not unusual for there to be a Code Blue alert every night, and not just during Diaz's employment there.  Employees were often unable to read heart monitors and other basic equipment.  Doctors often failed to respond to emergencies.  During the deaths Diaz reportedly blamed the doctors who showed up late.  Diaz may have served as a fall guy for the doctors.

Following standard procedures, Diaz's defense would be extraordinarily costly to the cash strapped public defender's office.  To save money, a new administrator fired all the investigators and implemented a budget defense for Diaz.  The reasoning seemed to be, “Better to sacrifice one suspected serial killer, than to risk harming the mass of the office's clients.”  At trial, Diaz's defense took the unusual tactic of saving money for itself and the state by presenting its case before a judge rather than a jury.  This tactic was unusual because a judge would likely feel political pressure to convict a suspected serial killer.  Most jurors would not likely feel as much pressure, and a single unconvinced juror could stop a conviction.

The judge convicted Diaz of 12 counts of first-degree murder.  At sentencing, the defense failed to present character witnesses.  It could at least have had each of Diaz's five children state, “Don't kill my Daddy.”  The defense's short plea for mercy was that Diaz had saved the state a considerable amount of money.  The judge was not impressed and sentenced Diaz to die, ironically by lethal injection.

Following Diaz's conviction, his appeal attorneys located, in 1989, a study of 140 lidocaine patients done by the Coroner's Office of Nassau County, NY.  The study found that 24 of the patients had similar levels of lidocaine as Diaz's alleged victims, but that none of the 24 were suspected of being poisoned.  The study concluded that there is a great difference in the rate at which different patients metabolize lidocaine.  The assumption that Diaz's alleged victims died of lidocaine poisoning appears unfounded.  Diaz has since exhausted his state appeals, but in 1998 a federal judge granted him an evidentiary hearing.


Reference:  American Justice

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Southern California Cases, Mass Murder Cases