No jail time for Tennessee nurse convicted of fatal drug mistake

RaDonda Vaught, a former Tennessee nurse convicted of two counts of a fatal drug mistake whose trial has become a rallying cry for nurses fearful of criminalizing medical errors, will not be required to spend any time in prison.

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith on Friday granted Vaught a miscarriage, meaning her conviction will be overturned if she completes a three-year probation.

Smith said the family of the patient who died as a result of Vaught’s medication mess suffered a “terrible loss” and “nothing that happens here today can alleviate that loss.”

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

The judge noted that Vaught had no criminal record, was removed from the healthcare environment, and will never practice nursing again. The judge also said, “This was a terrible, terrible mistake and there were consequences for the defendant.”

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

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 manslaughter and gross negligence of a disabled adult in the 2017 death of patient Charlene Murphey, 75. Murphey was prescribed Versed, a sedative, but Vaught inadvertently gave her a fatal dose of vecuronium, a powerful paralytic.

Charlene Murphey’s son Michael Murphey testified at Friday’s sentencing hearing that his family remains devastated by the sudden death of their matriarch. She was “a very forgiving person” who would not want Vaught to serve time in prison, he said, but her widowed father wanted Vaught to receive “the maximum sentence”.

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

Vaught’s case stands out because medical errors — even deadly ones — are often the province of state medical boards, and lawsuits are almost never prosecuted in criminal courts.

The Davidson County District Attorney, which did not defend any particular sentence or oppose parole, described Vaught’s case as an indictment of a careless nurse, not the entire nursing profession. Prosecutors argued at trial that Vaught ignored several warning signs when she took the wrong drug, including not realizing that Versed is a liquid and vecuronium is a powder.

Vaught admitted his mistake after the mess was discovered, and his defense largely focused on arguments that an honest mistake should not constitute a crime.

During the hearing on Friday, Vaught said she was forever changed by Murphey’s death and was “open and honest” about her mistake in an effort to prevent future mistakes from other nurses. Vaught also said there was no public interest in sentencing her to prison because she couldn’t re-offend after her nursing license was revoked.

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

At one point during his statement, Vaught turned to face Murphey’s family, apologizing for the fatal mistake and how the public campaign against his accusation may have forced the family to relive their loss.

“You don’t deserve this,” Vaught said. “I hope it doesn’t look like people are forgetting their loved one… I think we’re just in the midst of systems that don’t understand each other.”

Prosecutors also argued in the trial that Vaught circumvented the safeguards by switching the hospital’s computerized drug cabinet to “replace” mode, which made it possible to withdraw Murphey’s nonprescription drugs, including vecuronium. Other nurses and nursing experts told KHN that substitutions are routinely used in many hospitals to quickly access medication.

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

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

Vaught’s indictment was condemned by medical and nursing organizations that said the case’s dangerous precedent would worsen the nurse shortage and make nurses less open to error.

The case also generated considerable backlash on social media, as nurses streamed the trial on Facebook and joined Vaught on TikTok. That outrage inspired Friday’s protest in Nashville, which drew supporters from Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Among those protesters was David Peterson, a nurse who marched Thursday in Washington, D.C., to demand health care reform and safer nurse-patient ratios, then drove through the night to Nashville and slept in his car to protest. against Vaught’s sentence. The events were inherently intertwined, he said.

“The things being protested in Washington, practices in place due to understaffed hospitals, that’s exactly what happened with 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 malpractice lawsuits and would pursue similar projects “in every state.”

Vinsant said he would continue this campaign even if Vaught was not sent to prison.

“She shouldn’t have been charged in the first place,” Vinsant said. “I want her out of prison, of course, but the sentence doesn’t really affect where we go from here.”

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

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

Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio contributed to this report.

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

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