Details about the recruitment of Cmdr. Donal M. Billig, the Navy surgeon charged in connection with five deaths at Bethesda Naval Hospital, emerged from separate courtrooms yesterday as a court-martial began against a recruiter involved with Billig's hiring and pretrial arguments were launched in the case against the doctor.
The prosecutor in the trial of Cmdr. Reginald E. Newman, who was a recruiter based in Washington in 1982, said she plans to call another recruiter also charged in the case to testify that Newman told him to alter a document to downplay Billig's troubled professional past.
Billig, 54, has been charged with five counts of involuntary manslaughter and 24 counts of dereliction of duty for heart operations he performed at the naval hospital from January 1983 through November 1984. Ten other Navy officers face sanctions in connection with his hiring and practice.
Newman, 53, has been charged with lying about whether he withheld damaging information about Billig's record and whether he spoke to another recruiter, Lt. Cmdr. Jerry D. Penn, about changing the document that hinted at Billig's professional troubles at a New Jersey hospital.
Newman pleaded not guilty yesterday to the charges, which include dereliction of duty, perjury and making false official statements. Seven Navy officers were seated as jurors in the trial, which is being held at Bolling Air Force Base.
It is not clear yet whether Penn, a former recruiter from Pittsburgh who also has been charged for his role in recruiting Billig, will testify against Newman. Penn has been granted immunity by the prosecution for his testimony in the Newman trial, but his attorney questioned whether that immunity is valid in light of pending perjury charges.
The prosecutor, Lt. Elizabeth Dean, said Penn testified about Newman's order during a Navy board of inquiry in April. The Navy filed perjury charges against Penn based on some of that April testimony. " Penn has substantive evidence necessary for the government" to argue its case against Newman, Dean said.
Navy sources have said that recruiters brought in Billig when they were under pressure to increase the number of medical recruits.
At the Navy Yard in Washington yesterday, the Billig case moved closer to trial as defense attorneys and prosecutors introduced 11 motions to exclude evidence relating to the doctor's physical abilities in the last few years.
Judge Capt. Philip Roberts ruled that eye exams from May and October 1985, which revealed Billig had poor vision in his right eye, could be admitted into evidence. He also ruled against a defense request to have Billig declared fit, based on a naval report from September 1982 that allowed him to join despite "trauma" noted in his right eye.
Roberts is expected to rule on a dozen more motions today and tomorrow. Billig is expected to enter a plea this week. It is unclear whether the court-martial will be heard by a military judge or whether Billig will request a jury of Navy officers.