RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse who was legally charged for a deadly drug error in 2017, was convicted on Friday of gross negligence of an impaired adult and negligent murder following a three-day trial in Nashville, Tenn., that captivated nurses throughout the country.
According to sentencing recommendations issued by the Nashville district attorney’s office, Vaught faces three to six years in jail for negligence and one to two years for negligent murder as a defendant with no past convictions.
Vaught is set to be sentenced on May 13, and her sentences will most likely run consecutively, according to DA spokesperson Steve Hayslip.
Vaught was found not guilty of reckless homicide. Criminally negligent homicide was a lesser-included crime under reckless homicide.
Nurses and medical professionals throughout the country have been keenly following Vaught’s trial, with many concerned that it may create a precedent of criminalizing medical blunders. Medical mistakes are typically addressed by professional licensing boards or civil courts, and criminal charges such as Vaught’s are extremely unusual.
Janie Harvey Garner, the founder of Show Me Your Stethoscope, a nursing organization on Facebook with over 600,000 members, was concerned that the conviction might discourage nurses from sharing their own errors or near-errors, lowering the quality of patient care.
“Healthcare has just altered forever,” she stated following the ruling. “You can’t trust people to speak the truth anymore because they’ll be damning themselves.”
While the trial was still going on, the American Nurses Association published a statement indicating that nurses fear this case sets a “dangerous precedent.”
“Transparent, fair, and timely reporting procedures of medical errors without fear of prosecution maintain secure patient care environments,” according to the statement.
Vaught, 38, of Bethpage, Tenn., was arrested in 2019 and charged with reckless murder and gross negligence of an impaired adult in the death of Charlene Murphey, who died in late December 2017 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The negligence accusation resulted from charges that Vaught failed to adequately supervise Murphey after she was given the incorrect medicine.
Murphey, 75, of Gallatin, Tennessee, was sent to Vanderbilt for treatment of a brain injury. According to court evidence and a federal investigative report, her condition was improving at the time of the incident, and she was being prepped for discharge from the hospital. Murphey was given Versed, a sedative, to help her relax before being scanned in big, MRI-like equipment.
Vaught was entrusted with retrieving Versed from a computerized pharmaceutical cabinet, but instead took vecuronium, a strong paralyzer. According to an investigative report filed in her court case, the nurse ignored many warning indicators as she drew the erroneous medicine — including the fact that Versed is a liquid while vecuronium is a powder — and then injected Murphey before leaving her to be scanned. Murphey was brain dead by the time the mistake was noticed.
During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Vaught as a careless and reckless nurse who disregarded her training and abandoned her patient. Vaught was compared to a drunken motorist who killed a bystander by Assistant District Attorney Chad Jackson, but the nurse was “worse” since she was “driving with [her] eyes closed.”
“The unchangeable reality, in this case, is that Charlene Murphey died because RaDonda Vaught couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to what she was doing,” Jackson said.
Vaught’s attorney, Peter Strianse, said that his client committed an honest mistake that did not amount to a crime and became a “scapegoat” for systemic issues with drug cabinets at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2017.
Vanderbilt authorities, on the other hand, countered on the stand. Vanderbilt’s pharmacy medication safety officer, Terry Bosen, said that the hospital experienced some technical issues with medicine cabinets in 2017, but that these were rectified weeks before Vaught retrieved the improper dose for Murphey.
Strains focused on the reckless murder accusation in his closing address, stating that his client could not have “recklessly” ignored warning flags if she truly believed she had the appropriate medicine, and that there was “substantial disagreement” about whether vecuronium killed Murphey.
During the trial, Dr. Eli Zimmerman, a Vanderbilt neurologist, testified that Murphey’s death was “in the realm of probability” due to her brain damage. Furthermore, Davidson County Chief Medical Examiner Feng Li testified that, while he found Murphey died as a result of vecuronium, he couldn’t confirm how much of the medicine she got. According to Li, a tiny amount may not have been deadly.
“I’m not being sarcastic,” Strianse said of the medical examiner’s testimony, “but it seemed like some amateur ‘CSI’ episode — just without the science.”
Vaught did not appear in court. Prosecutors produced an audio clip of Vaught’s conversation with law enforcement agents on the second day of the trial, in which she acknowledged the prescription mistake and claimed she “probably just murdered a patient.”
Vaught said last year in a separate case before the Tennessee Board of Nursing that she became “complacent” and “distracted” when accessing the pharmaceutical cabinet and did not double-check which pill she had withdrawn despite several opportunities.
“I know the reason this patient is no longer here is because of me,” Vaught sobbed to the nursing board. “There will never be a day when I don’t think about what I did.”