NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The homicide conviction of a former Tennessee nurse for a medication error that killed a patient in 2017 has become a flashpoint in the campaign for Nashville district attorney.
RaDonda Vaught, 38, injected the paralyzing drug vecuronium into 75-year-old Charlene Murphey instead of the sedative Versed on Dec. 26, 2017. Last week, a jury found her guilty of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect. She will be sentenced in May and could face years in prison.
Nursing and patient safety groups have spoken against the decision to criminally prosecute a medical error, saying it will cause other providers to try to hide their mistakes and make health care less safe overall. After the guilty verdict, the two candidates hoping to replace Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk issued their own statements condemning the prosecution.
P. Danielle Nellis said that the medical mistake was “ a classic medical malpractice issue and should have been resolved as such.” She suggested that Funk does not use his prosecutorial discretion wisely and may be influenced by politics. Candidate Sara Beth Myers issued a statement vowing not to criminally charge medical professionals “for mistakes that amount to civil malpractice.”
Nashville's district attorney serves eight-year terms, and the issue might not have gained traction had the trial not happened so close to the election. Myers, Funk and Nellis will face off in the local Democratic primary on May 3. No Republicans are running for the position of Nashville’s chief prosecutor, so the primary will likely decide the race.
Funk fired back on Thursday, saying Vaught’s actions have been mischaracterized as a simple mistake. His statement listed 18 things that Vaught did wrong, contributing to Murphey's death.
Murphey had been admitted to the neurological intensive care unit after suffering from a brain bleed, according to trial testimony. Vaught was asked to inject her with Versed to help with anxiety before a PET scan but could not find the drug in an automatic dispensing cabinet. She used an override and accidentally grabbed vecuronium instead.
Vaught failed to read the name of the drug, didn’t notice a red warning on the top of the medication, failed to notice the drug was a powder that had to be reconstituted instead of a liquid, and didn’t stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction, according to testimony.
Funk said that Vaught’s homicide conviction means she will never practice medicine again, which is what Murphey’s family wanted.
Funk's office also released a statement from Murphey's daughter-in-law Chandra Murphey, which thanked prosecutors. It also said the politicization of the case is “humiliating, degrading and retraumatizes us. We thought we had closure. We may never get over the reaction to this verdict.”
In a telephone interview, Myers said she has already heard from a number of medical professionals who are concerned about possible future prosecutions by Funk's office. Funk has cast Vaught as an outlier whose egregious conduct won't set a precedent for how other provider errors are handled.
Myers said prosecutors need to focus on intentional violent crime and accused Funk of “attempting to grab headlines" with a high-profile case.
“How does the prosecution of this health care provider make our community safer?” she asked.