Nurse Whistle-Blower Not Guilty for Reporting Doctor
Jury rules Texas whistle-blower fired for confidential letter is not guilty.
Feb. 11, 2010— -- A Texas jury has found veteran nurse Anne Mitchell not guilty of harassment after she wrote a confidential letter to the Texas Medical Board complaining about a doctor she believed practiced shoddy medicine.
Her lawyer, John H. Cook IV, announced the verdict today on the fourth day of the trial in Andrew, Texas. Jurors took less than an hour to reach their verdict.
"We are glad that this phase of this ordeal has ended and that Anne has been restored to her liberty," Cook told media today. "But there was great damage done in this case, and this does not make them whole."
Mitchell, 52, could have faced 10 years in prison for doing what she believed was her obligation under the law -- to report unsafe medical practices.
The verdict could have had a profound effect on whistle-blowers in Texas and nationwide.
Mitchell had asssumed the letter she wrote to Dr. Rolando Arafiles Jr. was anonymous. Instead, he fired her after reporting her to the local sheriff -- a former patient and admirer of the doctor -- for maliciously ruining his reputation.
Police in Kermit, Texas, searched Mitchell's computer and found the letter, then charged her with "misuse of official information" in her role at Winkler Memorial Hospital, a third-degree felony in Texas under an abuse-of-power statute.
The case was so contentious that it set friends against one another in this oil and cow town of 5,200 near the New Mexico border, and had to be moved miles away to a state court in Andrew, where the trial got under way Monday.
Local residents worry about losing doctors and nurses. There are only a dozen nurses and three doctors in all of Winkler County.
"Who wants to move to the desert, you know?" resident Bryant Van Zandt told ABCNews.com. "Who wants to move out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"I think that nurses must be on the side of patients," added resident Phil Parks. "They spend more time with patients than doctors do."
"The doctor himself, he saved my life in October," said local resident Betty Edwards. " So I have very high aspirations for him."
Arafiles is still practicing medicine at Winkler Memorial Hospital.
The case sent shock waves around the country, particularly among the state and national nursing associations, which raised $40,000 for Mitchell's defense. They said they're afraid that if she is found guilty, there will be no watchdogs for unsound or unsafe medicine.
"This would be a true implosion for the nursing profession, because nurses might think twice about what they report," said Gwen Agabatekwe, a nurse who flew from St. David Medical Center in Austin to sit in on the pretrial hearings on the case.
"If they see something that's not right or unsound or unsafe, it's our obligation to report it," said the 54-year-old who is a member of the National Nurses Organizing Committee-Texas, which sponsored the whistle-blower legislation.
"We are here to protect and serve, much like policemen and firefighters," she told ABCNews.com. "If a professional person is not acting [safely], they need to be called on it."
Charges against Vickilyn Galle, a nurse who helped Mitchell write the letter and was also fired, were dropped by the prosecution last week.
All along, Arafiles said he was the victim in the case, even though he had been reprimanded several times by the hospital. "I'm the first one to testify today," was all he would say as he entered the courtroom Monday.