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Long IslandCrime

Health care workers sentenced to probation in nursing home death

Sijimole Reji, Annieamma Augustine and Martine Morland are

Sijimole Reji, Annieamma Augustine and Martine Morland are all former county employees who were convicted of misdemeanors in the nursing home death of an elderly person.  Credit: NCPD

A judge sentenced three health care workers to probation Friday following the death of an elderly patient whose ventilator became disconnected at a publicly run nursing home in Uniondale.

But the family of victim Carmela Contrera had wanted jail sentences for the trio, and later expressed disappointment that the former A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility employees wouldn’t spend any time behind bars.

“She was left to die a horrible death because she was left without air for nine minutes,” Andrea Contrera said of her mother at the Nassau County Court sentencing. “… I would not wish this type of death on anyone.”

A jury in October convicted registered nurses Sijimole Reji, 44, of Smithtown, and Annieamma Augustine, 59, of West Hempstead, along with certified nurse aide Martine Morland, 43, of Freeport, of the misdemeanor offense of willful violation of public health laws.

Jurors found the trio neglected Contrera, then 81, by not giving her timely and adequate care.

But the panel acquitted them of felony charges of endangering the welfare of a vulnerable elderly person and criminally negligent homicide, while also convicting Morland of a felony count of falsifying business records.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert Schwartz sentenced each defendant to 3 years of probation, telling them to surrender their medical credentials for that time period and also ordering them individually to do 200 hours of community service.

The State Attorney General’s Office had alleged the nursing home employees ignored Contrera’s ventilator alarms for nine minutes and 24 seconds before her death in December 2015.

Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Zadek contended during the trial that Contrera was suffocating on Dec. 20, 2015, as the trio chatted at a nurse’s station less than 40 feet from her room. The woman died the next day while hospitalized.

But defense attorneys told jurors during the trial that their clients didn’t give emergency care to Contrera because an alarm never sounded throughout the unit to warn that the ventilator she needed to breathe had become disconnected. They also said evidence showed a respiratory therapist had “faked checking” ventilators and alarms and falsified reports.

Zadek asked Schwartz on Friday to give each defendant a year in jail.

“A clear message must be sent to these defendants and to anyone else who believes that the neglect of our elderly, disabled and vulnerable citizens will be tolerated by our society,” the prosecutor said.

But defense attorneys Steven Christiansen, Michael Franzese and James Toner pointed to their clients’ strong family ties, lack of arrests and records as caregivers while asking Schwartz to mete out lesser punishments.

They later called the judge’s sentencing decisions “fair,” and said their clients felt a sense of relief.

Before announcing the sentences, Schwartz called the case “heartbreaking.” He also extended condolences to Contrera’s family and said the neglect she had suffered was “egregious.”

But Schwartz said he’d found reason to temper the punishments of the former nursing home employees. He said Contrera was thriving under good care up until the fateful day, and family who visited her daily would have noticed if that hadn’t been the case.

“Given the history and the absence of any evidence of malice on the part of the defendants, I don’t think a sentence of imprisonment is necessary,” the judge said.

The family of Contrera, who was nicknamed Millie, remembered the late mother of two and grandmother on Friday as a chef who had prepared “awesome Italian feasts,” a voracious reader who also had liked to play Scrabble, and a New York Mets fan.

“I’d like to say that justice, again, was not served,” Andrea Contrera said after leaving the courtroom, echoing comments she made after the trial. “And my mother deserved better.”