Tennessee Nurse Spared Jail Time After Being Convicted of Homicide for Deadly Medical Mistake

A judge has given a Tennesse nurse lighter sentencing for homicide charges that could have put her behind bars for years.

On Friday afternoon, Judge Jennifer Smith announced her decision to give lighter sentencing to RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who was convicted of homicide for making a medical mistake that led to the death of her patient, Charlene Murphey, in 2017.

On Dec. 26, 2017, Vaught injected vecuronium, a medication used mainly for general anesthesia, into 75-year-old Charlene Murphey instead of the sedative Versed. This is believed to have paralyzed Murphey and subsequently caused her death the next day.

Under normal circumstances, Vaught would have faced up to eight years in prison for homicide offenses a jury found her guilty of in March, including gross neglect of an impaired adult and criminally negligent homicide.

Yet, the judge’s Friday sentence, in which she applied a judicial method called “diversion,” effectively means that Vaught could have her convictions vacated after meeting conditional terms in a three-year supervised probation period.

The sentencing comes as health care workers around the country protested Vaught’s homicide conviction outside of the Davidson County Criminal Court in Tennessee prior to the judge’s announcement, in a case that has drawn the attention of nurses’ organizations around the country.

“The criminalization of medical errors is unnerving, and this verdict sets into motion a dangerous precedent,” the American Nurses Association objected to the conviction in a March 25 statement. “Health care delivery is highly complex. It is inevitable that mistakes will happen. … It is completely unrealistic to think otherwise.”

“We forgive her,” Chandra Murphey, Charlene’s daughter-in-law, testified on the stand on Friday. “Do we think she intentionally went in and said, ‘I’m gonna kill Miss Charlene today’? No, we don’t. My mother-in-law would want her to be forgiven. And jail time is not an option … to me.”

However, the prosecution, the State of Tennesse, believes Vaught violated her duty of care in her mistake and should therefore be punished.

Nurse legal consultant Donna Jones, the state’s expert witness, said that Vaught violated the “standard of care” expected of a professional caretaker. 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.

“RaDonda Vaught acted recklessly, and Charlene Murphey died as a result of that,” Murfreesboro Assistant District Attorney Chadwick Jackson told the jury during Friday’s closing arguments. “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.”

Ultimately, the court favored the position that Vaught was not committing the offense out of intention.

“This is not a situation that involves any sustained intent … the court, therefore, finds that judicial diversion is appropriate and enters an order placing the defendant on supervised probation for three years,” said Judge Smith during the Friday announcement.