Homicide trial for ex-nurse's medication error goes to jury

The fate of a former Tennessee nurse whose patient died after she was accidentally injected with a paralyzing drug is in the hands of the jury

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The fate of a former Tennessee nurse whose patient died after she was accidentally injected with a paralyzing drug was put in the hands of the jury on Thursday evening.

RaDonda Vaught, 37, is charged with reckless homicide for administering vecuronium to 75-year-old Charlene Murphey instead of the sedative Versed on Dec. 26, 2017. She is also charged with gross neglect of an impaired adult.

Murphey had been admitted to the neuro ICU on Dec. 24, 2017, after suffering from a brain bleed. Two days later, doctors trying to determine the cause of the bleed ordered a PET scan. Murphey was claustrophobic and was prescribed Versed for her anxiety, according to testimony. When Vaught could not find Versed in an automatic drug dispensing cabinet, she used an override and accidentally grabbed vecuronium instead.

In closing statements, defense attorney Peter Strianse questioned whether prosecutors had proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the vecuronium injection caused Murphey's death. Strianse pointed out that the original death certificate identified intracerebral hemorrhage and cardiac arrest as the cause of death. Only a year later was a new death certificate issued identifying vecuronium intoxication as the cause, and it was issued without an autopsy.

Medical examiner Feng Li had earlier told an investigator that he didn't believe a small dose of vecuronium would be very harmful.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Vaught injected a much larger dose than the prescribed 1 milligram. They entered into evidence the used syringe, but there was a dispute among witnesses as to whether the amount of drug left in the syringe supported that idea. Among other things, the syringe passed through a number of hands before it was given to law enforcement.

Vaught also failed to read the name of the drug, didn’t notice a red warning on the top of the medication, and didn’t stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction, according to testimony.

“How does one blow through so many warning without consulting her training education and experience or even common sense?” Assistant District Attorney Brittani Flatt asked the jury.

Vaught readily admitted to her error with the medication as soon as she realized it, and prosecutors used her words against her in closing statements. Quoting from Vaught's interview with a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent, Flatt said, “I definitely should have paid more attention. I should have called the pharmacy. I shouldn’t have overridden, because it wasn’t an emergency."

Strianse, in closing statements, quoted the TBI investigator Ramona Smith's words to Vaught at the close of that same interview. “Error is error. We’re all human.”

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This story has been corrected to show that Murphey died after the injection, but her cause of death is disputed.