Nicole Hester / AP
RaDonda Vaught, a former Tennessee nurse convicted of two counts of a felony drug overdose, whose trial has become a rallying cry for nurses for fear of criminalizing a medical error, should not spend any time in prison.
Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith on Friday granted Bhat a judicial diversion, meaning he would be convicted if he completes a three-year trial.
Smith said the Murphy family had suffered a “terrible loss” and that “what is happening here today cannot reduce this loss.”
“Miss Watt is well aware of the seriousness of the crime,” Smith said. “He credibly expressed remorse in this courtroom.”
The judge noted that Vaught had no criminal record, was removed from the healthcare setting and would never practice nursing again. The judge added: “It was a terrible, horrible mistake and it had consequences for the accused.”
As the sentence read, cheers erupted from the crowd of hundreds of purple-clad protesters who had gathered outside the courthouse to oppose the VAT trial.
Vaught, 38, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, faces up to eight years in prison. In March, he was convicted of criminal negligence for the 2017 death of 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphy and extreme negligence of disabled adults. Murphy was given Versed, a sedative, but Vaught inadvertently gave him a deadly dose of a powerful paralytic vecuronium.
Charlene Murphy’s son, Michael Murphy, testified at Friday’s sentencing hearing that his family was devastated by the sudden death of their mother. He was a “very forgiving person” who did not want Bhatt to stay in prison, he said, but his widowed father wanted Bhatt to receive “maximum punishment”.
“My dad suffers from this every day,” said Michael Murphy. He goes to the cemetery three to four times a week and sits there crying.
Vaught’s case stands because medical malpractice – even fatalities – is usually covered by the state medical board and the case is almost never handled in a criminal court.
The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, which did not advocate for a specific sentence or oppose the trial, described Bhat’s case as an indictment of a careless nurse, not the entire nursing profession. Prosecutors argued in court that Vaught ignored multiple warning signs when he took the wrong drug, including Versace, a liquid, and Vecuronium, a powder, but failed to notice it.
Vaught admits his error after the mix-up was discovered, and his defense focuses primarily on the argument that an honest mistake should not be called a crime.
During Friday’s hearing, Bhatt said he had been changed forever by Murphy’s death and was “open and honest” about his mistakes in trying to prevent future mistakes by other nurses. Vaught added that there was no public interest in sentencing her to prison because she probably could not commit the crime again 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,” Bhatt said, his voice trembling as he began to cry. “When Mrs. Murphy died, part of me died with her.”
At one point in his remarks, Bhatt confronted Murphy’s family, apologizing for the fatal error and how publicity against his trial forced the family to recover their losses.
“You don’t deserve it,” Vott said. “I hope it doesn’t come because people forget your loved one. … I think we’re in the middle of a system that doesn’t understand each other.”
Prosecutors further argued that Vaught evaded protections by switching the hospital’s computerized medicine cabinet to “override” mode, allowing Murphy’s drugs, including Vecuronium, to be withdrawn. Other nurses and nursing experts have told KHN that overrides are routinely used in many hospitals for faster access to medication.
Theresa Collins, a Georgia travel nurse who closely followed the trial, said she would no longer use the feature, even if it delayed patient care, but prosecutors argued it proved VAT recklessness.
“I’m not going to ignore anything outside of basic saline. I don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” Collins said. “When you criminalize what healthcare workers do, it changes the whole ballgame.”
Brett Kelman / Kaiser Health News
Vaught’s prosecution denounced the nursing and medical agencies, saying the dangerous precedent in the lawsuit would only exacerbate the nursing deficit and make nurses less likely to make mistakes.
The case also drew considerable reactions on social media as nurses streamed the trial via Facebook and rallied behind VAT on tickets. That outburst sparked Friday’s protests in Nashville, which drew supporters from as far as Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nevada.
Among the protesters was David Peterson, a nurse who marched in Washington, D.C. on Thursday demanding health care reform and safer nurse-patient stuffing ratios, then went to Nashville all night and slept in his car to protest VAT penalties. The incidents were implicitly involved, he said.
“The thing that is being protested in Washington, because of poor hospital staffing, is exactly what happened in Radonda. And that puts every nurse at risk every day,” Peterson said. “It’s cause and effect.”
Tina Vincent, a Knoxville nurse and podcaster who hosted the Nashville protests, said the party has talked with Tennessee lawmakers about legislation to protect nurses from criminal charges for medical malpractice and will follow similar bills “in every state.”
Vincent said they would run the campaign even if Bhatt was not sent to jail.
“She should not have been charged in the first place,” Vincent said. “Of course, I don’t want him to go to jail, but this sentence doesn’t really matter where we go from here.”
Janice Peterson, a recently retired ICU nurse from Massachusetts, said she took part in the protest after acknowledging the very well-known challenges from her own nursing career in Bhat’s case. Peterson’s fear was a common deterrent among nurses: “This could be me.”
“And if it were me, and I looked out the window and saw the 1,000 people who supported me, I would feel better,” he said. “Because for each of those 1000 people, there are probably 10 more people who support him but can’t come.”
Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio contributed to this report.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that creates in-depth journalism about health issues. It is an editorially independent operating program KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).