No jail time for Tennessee nurse convicted of fatal drug offense

RaDonda Vaught, a former Tennessee nurse convicted of two felonies for a fatal drug offense whose trial became a rallying cry for nurses fearful of the criminalization of medical malpractice, will not have to spend time in prison.

Davidson County District Court Jennifer Smith on Friday issued a judicial diversion, meaning her conviction will be dropped if she completes three years of probation.

Smith said the family of the patient who died as a result of Vaught’s drug switch has suffered a “terrible loss” and “nothing happening here today can mitigate that loss.”

“Miss Vaught is well aware of the gravity of the offense,” Smith said. “She credibly expressed regret in this courtroom.”

The judge noted that Vaught had no criminal record, has been removed from health care and will never practice nursing again. The judge also said: “This was a terrible, terrible mistake and there are consequences for the defendant.”

As the verdict was read, cheers erupted from a crowd of hundreds of purple-clad protesters who gathered outside the courthouse in opposition to Vaught’s prosecution.

Vaught, 38, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, faces up to eight years in prison. In March, she was convicted of murder by gross negligence and gross neglect of a disabled adult for the death of 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphey in 2017. Murphey was prescribed Versed, a sedative, but Vaught accidentally gave her a lethal dose of vecuronium. , a powerful paralytic.

Charlene Murphey’s son, Michael Murphey, testified at Friday’s hearing that his family was still devastated by the sudden death of their matriarch. She was “a very forgiving person” who wouldn’t want Vaught serving a prison sentence, he said, but his widowed father wanted Vaught to receive “the maximum sentence.”

“My father suffers from this every day,” said Michael Murphey. “He goes to the cemetery three to four times a week and just sits there crying.”

Vaught’s case stands out because medical malpractice — even fatal ones — generally fall within the purview of state medical boards, and lawsuits are almost never prosecuted in criminal courts.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s office, which argued neither for any particular sentence nor against probation, has described Vaught’s case as an indictment of one careless nurse, not the entire nursing profession. Prosecutors argued at trial that Vaught overlooked several warning signs when she picked up the wrong drug, including failing to notice that Versed is a liquid and vecuronium is a powder.

Vaught admitted her mistake after the mix-up was discovered, and her defense focused largely on arguments that an honest mistake shouldn’t be a crime.

At Friday’s hearing, Vaught said she was forever changed by Murphey’s death and was “open and honest” about her mistake in trying to avoid future mistakes by other nurses. Vaught also said there was no public interest in sentencing her to prison, as there was no way she could repeat herself after her nursing license was revoked.

“I’ve lost a lot more than just my nursing license and my career. I’ll never be the same person again,” Vaught said, her voice trembling as she began to cry. “When Mrs. Murphey died, part of me died with her.”

At some point during her statement, Vaught turned to Murphey’s family and apologized for both the fatal mistake and how the public campaign against her prosecution may have forced the family to relive their loss.

“You don’t deserve this,” Vaught said. “I hope it doesn’t come across as people forgetting your loved one… I think we’re in the middle of systems that don’t understand each other.”

Prosecutors also argued at the trial that Vaught circumvented security measures by putting the hospital’s automated medication cabinet in “override” mode, making it possible to withdraw drugs not prescribed to Murphey, including vecuronium. Other nurses and nurses have told KHN that overrides are routinely used in many hospitals to quickly access medication.

Theresa Collins, a Georgia travel nurse who closely followed the lawsuit, said she will no longer use the feature, even if it delays patient care, after prosecutors alleged it proved Vaught’s recklessness.

“I’m not going to do anything but basic saline. I just don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” Collins said. “If you criminalize what health professionals do, the whole game changes.”

Vaught’s prosecution was condemned by nurses and medical organizations who said the dangerous precedent of the case would exacerbate the nurse shortage and make nurses less candid about mistakes.

The case also sparked backlash on social media, as nurses streamed the trial via Facebook and rallyed behind Vaught on TikTok. That outcry inspired Friday’s protest in Nashville, which drew supporters from Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Among those protesters was David Peterson, a nurse who marched in Washington, DC on Thursday to demand health care reform and safer staffing between nurses and patients, then drove all night to Nashville and slept in his car so he could protest. against the conviction of Vaught. The events were inherently intertwined, he said.

“The things that are being protested in Washington, practices that are being practiced because of the poor staff in hospitals, that’s exactly what happened to RaDonda. And it puts every nurse at risk every day,” Peterson said. “It’s cause and effect.”

Tina Vinsant, a Knoxville nurse and podcaster who organized the Nashville protest, said the group had spoken with Tennessee lawmakers about legislation to protect nurses from criminal charges for medical malpractice and would pursue similar bills “in every state.”

Vinsant said they would continue this campaign even if Vaught was not sent to jail.

“She shouldn’t have been charged in the first place,” Vinsant said. “Of course I don’t want her to serve a prison sentence, but the sentence doesn’t affect where we come from.”

Janis Peterson, a recently retired ICU nurse from Massachusetts, said she attended the protest after recognizing the all-too-familiar challenges of her own nursing career in Vaught’s case. Peterson’s fear was a common refrain among nurses, “It could have been me.”

“And if it was me, and I looked out that window and saw 1,000 people supporting me, I’d feel better,” she said. “Because for every one of those 1,000, there are probably 10 more who support her, but couldn’t come.”

Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio contributed to this report.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national editorial that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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