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Defense in nursing home death case argues alarm didn't go off

The prosecution in the case of the 81-year-old patient who died in December 2015 said the nurses charged ignored the alarm for more than nine minutes.

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. Photo Credit: NCPD

Three nursing home workers didn’t give emergency care to an elderly patient who later died because an alarm never sounded throughout the unit to warn that her ventilator had disconnected, defense attorneys argued Tuesday.

But the prosecution insisted the 81-year-old patient died in December 2015 because the trio ignored ventilator alarms for more than nine minutes, chatting at a nearby nurse’s station at publicly financed A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale while the woman was suffocating.

Charges in the trial of registered nurses Sijimole Reji, 43, of Smithtown, and Annieamma Augustine, 59, of West Hempstead, along with certified nurse aide Martine Morland, 43, of Freeport, include felony offenses of endangering the welfare of a vulnerable elderly person, criminally negligent homicide and falsifying business records.

“The alarm system in this case didn’t fail Carmela Contrera,” Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Zadek said of the patient in his closing argument at the Mineola trial. “These three defendants … who ignored her vent alarm for nine minutes and 24 seconds, they failed Carmela.”

The state attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case, has said the now-former nursing home employees face up to seven years in prison if the Nassau County Court jury finds them guilty.

Defense attorneys also argued Tuesday that an alarm system that was supposed to blare in the unit in the case of a ventilator disconnection wasn’t working because it couldn't be heard in the background of a 911 call.

“You would hear an alarm if the alarm system was working and you don’t,” said Augustine’s attorney, Steven Christiansen.

He also said the facility's alleged understaffing meant management was setting up employees to fail, but once "a foreseeable tragedy" occurred, they tried "to shift the blame."

Reji’s lawyer, Michael Franzese, told jurors that nursing home officials weren’t looking for the truth when probing Contrera's death because the facility was actually responsible for the fatality.

The defense also claimed that evidence showed a respiratory therapist had “faked checking” ventilators and alarms and falsified reports.

“The credibility of their witnesses is horribly lacking,” Morland’s attorney, James Toner, said of the prosecution.

But Zadek said each of the defendants showed a “gross deviation from the standard of care,” not responding to functional alarms and not reconnecting the patient immediately to the machine she needed to breathe.

He said an alarm wasn't heard on the 911 tape because "it had already been unplugged from the wall."

The prosecutor also stressed the alleged proximity between the defendants — when authorities contend they failed to act — and Contrera as she struggled to survive.

“How far were they from her? It's in evidence ... 37.9 feet,” Zadek said of the patient, who died the next day while hospitalized.

Jury deliberations are expected to start Wednesday.

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