A nurse who was found guilty of homicide after her 75-year-old patient died when they received the wrong drug has been sentenced to three years of supervised probation.
RaDonda Vaught, 38, had faced up to eight years behind bars after her patient Charlene Murphey died when she was administered with a paralysis drug instead of a sedative at Vanderbilt University Health Center in 2017.
But Judge Jennifer Smith diverted the sentence today, saying the case was a ‘terrible, terrible mistake’ and ‘there have been consequences to the defendant’. It means if Ms Vaught meets the conditions of her probation she will serve no jail time and the charges can be wiped from her record.
Cheers and applause erupted from the hundreds of nurses gathered outside Davidson County Criminal Court, Nashville, to protest against the sentencing today.
They had turned up to support Ms Vaught wearing purple T-shirts reading ‘#IAmRaDonda’ and brandished placards that said ‘this would not be happening if her initials were M.D.’ and ‘mistake is not murder’. During the protest they heard rallying speeches from nurses, supporters and even Ms Murphey’s son who claimed his mother would not want the nurse to be imprisoned.
Ms Vaught had been found guilty of criminally neglect homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult in March. The more severe charge of guilty of reckless homicide was dropped.
Her defense had today requested a judicial diversion, which would see the charges diverted and eventually dropped following probation. They point out she has no prior offenses.
But the prosecution argued that the gross neglect charge could not be diverted, saying the judge should take Ms Vaught’s attitude into consideration. She was charged with perjury in 2021 for checking a box on a firearms application saying she had no pending felony charges, and that same year she gave an expletive-laden TV interview.
The case has galvanized nurses across America, who are already struggling against crippling staffing shortages and poor working conditions following the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have already quit the profession saying the risk of going to prison for a mistake has made nursing intolerable.
RaDonda Vaught, 38, a former nurse, was sentenced to three years probation on Friday at Davidson County Criminal Court in Nashville, Tennessee. She is pictured above after hearing the verdict. She had faced up to eight years behind bars for criminally neglect homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult
Before the sentencing was delivered Ms Vaught broke down in tears as she apologized to the family of patient Charlene Murphey, 75, who died after receiving the wrong drug. She said that words will never fully express her ‘remorse and sorrow’
Judge Jennifer Smith diverted the sentence today, saying the case was a ‘terrible, terrible mistake’ and ‘there have been consequences to the defendant’. On the right is Kelly Kelley, a childhood friend of RaDonda Vaught, pictured speaking before her sentencing today
Nurses pictured outside the court house. They clapped and cheered when the verdict was read out. Hundreds came from all across the nation to protest against a nurse being imprisoned for making a mistake at work
Hundreds of nurses protested outside the courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, today as colleage RaDonda Vaught, 37, faces up to eight years in prison for accidentally injecting a 75-year-old patient with the wrong drug
They held up placards proclaiming that they were heroes in 2020 but felons in 2022, turning up to protest against being imprisoned for a mistake made at work. (Photos in Nashville, Tennessee)
RaDonda Vaught, 37, (left) pictured while apologizing to the family. She had injected patient Charlene Murphey (right) with a paralysis drug instead of a sedative in December 2017 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center
The victim’s son Michael said earlier: ‘Knowing my mom, the way my mom was and stuff, she would not want to see her [the nurse] serve jail time. That’s just mom. Mom was a very forgiving person’.
His view contrasts with the victim’s husband, who wants the nurse to serve a prison sentence.
Emergency room nurse for 14 years Aleece Ellison traveled from Texas to protest outside the court, saying she broke down crying when Vaught was found guilty. ‘Never in my 14 years have I felt so helpless,’ she said. ‘This could be me.’
She added that Friday’s outcome could determine whether she stays in nursing. She said she came to Nashville to ‘let the world know that criminalizing a mistake, an honest mistake, is not a direction we want to go in’.
Janie Reed, who drove over from Memphis, said she became a nurse practitioner several years ago because ‘bedside was getting dangerous… There were never enough nurses’.
‘I usually don’t do things like this,’ she said of the protest. ‘I’m just so passionate about it. Nurses are going to go to jail and more people are going to die because they won’t report their errors.’
Ms Vaught appeared in court at 9am today, and broke down while apologizing to the family saying that words will never fully express her ‘remorse and sorrow’. ‘I’ll be haunted by my role in her untimely passing,’ she said, ‘she did not deserve that’.
Vaught also apologized that discussions of systemic failures in the hospital and the danger of criminalizing mistakes by healthcare workers took attention away from the victim.
‘I’m sorry that this public outpouring of support for me has caused you to continue to live this over and over,’ she told them. ‘No one has forgotten about your loved one, no one has forgotten about Ms. Murphey. We’re all horribly, horribly sorry for what happened.’
Ms Murphey fell ill on Christmas Eve in 2017 and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma — where blood collects between the skull and surface of the brain — leading to her being transferred to Vanderbilt.
But the patient was claustrophobic, and prescribed the sedative Versed or midazolam to ensure she would lie still for a scan of her brain.
At the time Ms Vaught was working in the hospital’s ICU as a ‘help all’ nurse. She was asked to retrieve the medication for Ms Murphey but accidentally retrieved much more powerful paralyzing agent vercuronium.
The patient then suffered a cardiac arrest and partial brain death, before dying on December 27, 2017, which was two days after Christmas Day.
Ms Vaught admitted to the mistake as soon as she realized what had happened and, after a lengthy legal process, was handed two charges linked to the death.
Interviewed after the verdict in March, Ms Vaught said she was relieved to have a resolution after 4 1/2 years and hopes Murphey’s family is relieved as well.
‘Ms. Murphey’s family is at the forefront of my thoughts every day,’ she said. ‘You don’t do something that impacts a family like this, that impacts a life, and not carry that burden with you.’
Murphey had been admitted to the neurological intensive care unit on December 24, 2017, after suffering from a brain bleed.
Two days later, doctors trying to determine the cause of the bleed, ordered a PET scan to check for cancer. Murphey was claustrophobic and was prescribed Versed for her anxiety, according to testimony.
Nurses heard speeches from colleagues, supporters and even a member of the victim’s family saying their mother would not want the nurse to be imprisoned. They are awaiting a sentence later today
When Vaught could not find Versed in an automatic drug dispensing cabinet, she used an override and accidentally grabbed vecuronium instead.
An expert witness for the state argued that Vaught violated the standard of care expected of nurses. In addition to grabbing the wrong medicine, she failed to read the name of the drug, did not notice a red warning on the top of the medication, and did not stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction, said nurse legal consultant Donna Jones.
Leanna Craft, a nurse educator at the neuro-ICU unit where Vaught worked, testified that it was common for nurses at that time to override the system in order to get drugs.
The hospital had recently updated an electronic records system, which led to delays in retrieving medications from the automatic drug dispensing cabinets. There was also no scanner in the imaging area for Vaught to scan the medication against the patient’s ID bracelet.
Assistant District Attorney Chadwick Jackson told the jury in closing arguments, ‘RaDonda Vaught acted recklessly, and Charlene Murphey died as a result of that. RaDonda Vaught had a duty of care to Charlene Murphey and RaDonda Vaught neglected that. … The immutable fact of this case is that Charlene Murphey is dead because RaDonda Vaught couldn´t pay attention to what she was doing.’