A jury on Friday convicted former Nashville nurse RaDonda Vaught of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult after a medication error contributed to the death of a patient in 2017.
The jury deliberated for approximately four hours in a trial closely watched by nurses and medical professionals from across the country, many worried Vaught’s case could set a precedent for medical errors leading to criminal charges.
Vaught, 38, was indicted in 2019 on two charges, reckless homicide and impaired adult abuse, in the death of Charlene Murphey at Vanderbilt University Medical Center just after Christmas 2017. Jury selection in her trial began Monday.
Criminally negligent homicide is a lesser included charge of reckless homicide under state law.
Murphey, 75, died at Vanderbilt on Dec. 27, 2017, after being injected with the wrong drug.
Murphey was supposed to receive a dose of Versed, a sedative, but was instead injected with vecuronium, which left her unable to breathe, prosecutors have said.
“I am just relieved that this portion of the process is over,” Vaught told reporters after the verdict was read. “I hope that they (Murphey’s family) are also just as relieved to be moving away from this process that has been held up in the legal system for four and a half years. I hope that they are able to find peace with the resolution of this process. “
Does Vaught verdict set bad precedent?
Nurses watched from the gallery, too.
Many of them wore scrubs to court. They traveled from across the state and the country, and said they wanted to both support Vaught and make clear their worry over the fallout of the case.
They were quietly animated in the courtroom gallery. Some, like Rebecca Ray, spent her time crocheting a blanket.
“She came in innocent and she will leave innocent, no matter what the jury says,” Ray said Friday morning before the verdict was read.
But prosecutors argued Vaught’s actions alone were beyond the normal scope of an accident or mistake.
“RaDonda Vaught probably did not intend to kill Miss Murphey, but she made a knowing choice,” Assistant District Attorney Brittani Flatt said Thursday during the state’s closing arguments.
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They said Vaught consciously disregarded warnings and risks when she pulled the wrong medication from an electronic dispensing cabinet that required her to search for the drug by name, and is therefore culpable in Murphey’s death.
“This was not an accident or mistake as it has been claimed. There were multiple chances for RaDonda Vaught to just pay attention,” Assistant District Attorney Chad Jackson said in a rebuttal during closing arguments.
Vaught’s defense argues that although Murphey’s death is tragic and irreversible, the outsize consequence does not make Vaught’s mistake a conscious, criminal act of homicide.
“I hope it does not set any legal precedent. I hope that this district attorney’s office or other district attorney’s office will not see this as open season on medical errors,” defense attorney Peter Strianse said Friday.
When asked Friday after the verdict, prosecutors vehemently denied that this case was based on anything but the actions of one person.
“No. Absolutely not,” Assistant District Attorney Debbie Housel said. “This is what RaDonda Vaught did, not the nursing community.”
“We want Davidson County to know that we, as the DA’s office do not prosecute on lies, we prosecute on the facts. The jury heard all the facts in this case, and they rendered a verdict accordingly, and we thank them for that, “Jackson said.
But nurses in the gallery clearly disagreed.
Murphey’s family – her daughter in law, her granddaughter, others who loved her – were also in the gallery all week.
When the verdict was read, they were themselves largely still, showing no large reaction to the news. Each hugged the three prosecutors before they exited the courtroom.
Family members declined to comment all week and left the courtroom without speaking to reporters Friday.
No question of malice
Vaught has always taken responsibility for her actions, both immediately after Murphey suffered a cardiac arrest and she realized she may have given the wrong drug, and in every investigation since then.
“What struck me most about RaDonda Vaught’s interviews was not her honest recitation of the facts … but her genuine worry and concern about Charlene Murphey and concern for her family,” Strianse said during the defense’s closing statement Thursday. “She was not thinking about herself.
“She was a scapegoat.”
Vaught was stripped of her license by the Tennessee Board of Nursing in July, after the board initially chose not to investigate the death.
Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith heard the case.
Alternate jurors were dismissed and the jury charged with its duty just before 6:30 pm Thursday, but remaining jurors chose to return early Friday morning to formally begin deliberations.
Throughout the week, the jurors were a remarkably animated bunch, nodding along with witnesses for both sides, nudging each other, exchanging glances.
Among the final panel, now made of six men and six women, was both a practicing registered nurse and a former respiratory therapist, whose medical experience could impact their review of the case.
They elected the director of a nonprofit that works in prisons to be their foreperson.
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Assistant District Attorneys Debbie Housel, Chad Jackson and Brittani Flatt prosecuted the case.
Murphey’s family sat in the gallery all week, as did a collection of nurses and other medical professionals across the aisle gathered in support of Vaught.
The American Nurses Association on Wednesday released a statement of concern the trial could set a worrying precedent and discourage nurses from reporting errors. They worried the trend could ultimately hinder patient safety.
Sentencing in the case will be handled by Smith at a later date, likely in mid-May.
The District Attorney’s office confirmed a conviction of criminally negligent homicide can carry 1-2 years of incarceration, the gross neglect charge could stretch from 3-6 years. The judge will determine whether the sentences, which could each run concurrently or consecutively, based on statutory guidelines.
Vaught took a moment after the verdict to speak to any nurses and health care professionals following the case.
“I do not think the takeaway message here is not to be honest and truthful,” Vaught said. “You just you guys do what you do. Do it well. Don’t let this defeat you mentally. Keep your standards.”
Reach Reporter Mariah Timms at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.