RaDonda Vaught will likely serve no prison time.
Vaught was sentenced Friday to serve three years probation for her involvement in the death of a Nashville woman five years ago.
Vaught, a former Vanderbilt nurse, was found guilty in March of two charges, criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult, after a medication error contributed to the death of 75-year-old Charlene Murphey in December 2017.
Vaught received a diverted sentence, meaning that if she meets the terms of her probation, the charges can be wiped from her record down the road.
A lengthy back and forth over the laws related to diversion took up a portion of the morning sentencing hearing. In the end, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith decided Vaught was eligible for the program on both counts.
“This was a terrible, terrible mistake,” Smith said. “And there have been consequences to the defendant.”
Vaught, in the courtroom, shook as Smith read out the sentence.
On the first floor of the Justice A.A. Birch Building in Nashville, applause broke out in an overflow room where a livestream of the hearing was played all day.
Across the street, cheers went up from the crowd, many themselves health care professionals, that gathered gathered in the park to watch and wait for the sentence.
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The case ignited debate among the medical community regarding issues with medical errors and concern over the nurse being held criminally liable in Murphey’s death.
Hundreds of supporters and nurses from across the nation descended on Nashville Friday to rally for her. For weeks, nurses, labor unions and others have urged the court not to give Vaught prison time.
Many wore purple to support Vaught. Others held signs deploring any possible jail time for her. The crowds reacted with groans and cheers at times during an emotional morning of testimony.
For the Murphey family, they expressed satisfaction with the sentence.
“We didn’t want jail time,” Murphey’s daughter-in-law Chandra Murphey said outside of court. “We just wanted to make sure she didn’t do this to anyone else.”
‘I am very sorry for what happened’
Vaught, who injected Murphey with the wrong medication, took responsibility for her actions immediately after and in each interview about the circumstances.
She did so again on Friday, speaking for the first time in court.
“Saying I’m sorry doesn’t seem like enough but you deserve to hear that and know that I am very sorry for what happened,” Vaught told the Murphey family, who sat quietly and nodded along.
Many supporters inside the overflow room in the courthouse watched with mostly emotionless expressions, though a few nodded in solemn agreement as Vaught spoke.
“When Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her,” Vaught said.
She said it wasn’t easy to stand before the Murphey family, knowing what they have gone through over the past four and a half years, and ask for the court’s leniency.
But Vaught said she is no longer a nurse and doesn’t pose a threat to the public.
“This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how they proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to to someone’s attention,” Vaught pleaded. “I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety.”
Murphey fell ill on Christmas Eve 2017 and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma at Sumner Regional Medical Center before being transferred to Vanderbilt.
Her condition appeared to improve and she was moved out of the highest ICU level, but doctors ordered she receive a PET scan to look for the cause of the brain bleed before she could be released.
But Murphey was claustrophobic.
Murphey, needing to lie still for the scan, was prescribed a sedative, Versed or midazolam.
Vaught had been working as a “help-all” nurse in the ICU and was asked to retrieve the medication and take it down to administer to Murphey where she was waiting in the scan area.
Vaught attempted to retrieve the medication. But when she was unable to find it she disengaged a safeguard allowing access to more powerful drugs.
Vaught accidently pulled vercuronium, a paralyzing agent, from the cabinet and injected Murphey with the drug.
By the time the error was realized, the patient suffered cardiac arrest and partial brain death. Murphey died Dec. 27, 2017.
Vaught has taken criticism for her failure to catch the mistake at several points before Murphey was injected and for leaving Murphey in the care of scan technicians and not personally monitoring her vitals after giving the medication.
Vanderbilt settled a civil lawsuit with the family soon after her death.
Vaught was investigated by the nursing licensing board in the months after Murphey’s death and was not at the time recommended to lose her license or be suspended.
But nearly a year after the event, an anonymous tip, a surprise inspection and state and federal investigations led to threatened sanctions for VUMC and a criminal indictment for Vaught. After going before the nursing board last year, Vaught was stripped of her license.
District Attorney Glenn Funk stands by the decision to prosecute.
Vaught’s defense attorney Peter Strianse said after the sentencing that she is one of the most “genuine” people he’s ever represented.
“What you see with RaDonda Vaught is what you get,” he told reporters after the sentencing.
After Vaught completes her probation, assuming she follows the terms of the sentence, “in the eyes of the law, it will be as if it never happened,” he said.
But, he said, the case would stay with Vaught forever.
“You can’t erase memory or the internet,” Strianse said.
‘Just the hurt I have watched’
The Murphey family had avoided commenting on the case publicly in the days and weeks after Vaught’s guilty verdict. They released a statement in March that became talking point the May 3 primary race for district attorney.
But in court on Friday, the family spoke about the pain and hurt they have gone through since Murphey’s death.
Murphey’s son, Michael, and two of her daughters-in-law, Rhonda and Chandra, gave tearful testimonies. A once seemingly composed Vaught cried more with each testimony.
“Just the hurt I have watched my family go through is horrible. It’s absolutely horrible,” Rhonda Murphey said. “And I try to be strong for them but at times it’s hard.”
Both Michael and Chandra said Charlene Murphey wouldn’t have wanted jail time for Vaught, eliciting applause and cheers from supporters outside the courthouse and a group in the courthouse’s overflow room.
Chandra Murphey, however, said she has never heard an apology from Vaught. Vaught’s crying intensified with those words. Vaught sought to rectify that with her unprepared remarks Friday before she took to the podium.
“We are happy bring some closure to the Murphey family,” Assistant District Attorney Chad Jackson said after the sentencing. “We are happy with the sentence the judge handed down. She’s an excellent judge. We respect her opinion and her ruling.”
Strianse said he thought it unlikely the letters from supporters were what swayed Smith, although she was able to review them as character testimony.
“Judge Smith is just a great judge who is extremely fair and extremely knowledgeable,” Strianse said.
Health care professionals and their fears
Health care professionals have spoken out with worry the case will deter other nurses from reporting errors for fear of outsized consequences.
But the case was about the actions of one individual, Funk said after the trial.
“Now, with this conviction she can never get her license back. That is the outcome Charlene Murphey’s family wanted. They wanted justice for Charlene Murphey and that is what our office achieved for them,” Funk wrote in a March statement.
More than 450 protesters gathered outside the courthouse Friday morning, some even coming from out of state.
“I just wanted to be here and say, ‘For the record, this is not OK,’” Indiana nurse Amber Rhine said in an interview.
Many protesters wore purple shirts saying “Nurse Strong. I stand with RaDonda,” while others held up signs saying “Nurses are not criminals.”
Nurses and health care professionals solicited statements before the hearing across social media with the hope of influencing Smith’s decision, flooding the court with hundreds of emails and voicemails.
“My hope that changes in the practices and protocols in the medical setting that have arisen since this event may at least be some positive aspect that has arisen. And going forward, I hope it prevents this type of situation from happening again,” Smith said.
“I recognize, however, that will never be enough,” she told the Murphey family, “to heal your wounds.”