A jury Monday cleared three health-care workers of negligently causing the death of an 81-year-old woman who was a patient in a publicly financed Uniondale nursing home after authorities alleged the trio ignored alarms that her ventilator had disconnected.
The acquittal brought some relief to the accused, but the panel was only able to reach a partial verdict on its fourth day of deliberations in Nassau County Court after a trial that has lasted more than a month.
The jury found the defendants not guilty of felony charges of criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a vulnerable elderly person. Each still faces a misdemeanor count of violating public health laws. Two felony counts of falsifying business records also remain against certified nurse aide Martine Morland, 43, of Freeport.
The state attorney general’s office had alleged that on Dec. 20, 2015, registered nurses Sijimole Reji, 43, of Smithtown, Annieamma Augustine, 59, of West Hempstead, and Morland ignored patient Carmela Contrera's ventilator alarms for nine minutes and 24 seconds.
The three were chatting at a nurse’s station at A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility and only 37.9 feet away from Contrera as she suffocated at the end of their overnight shift in December 2015, Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Zadek said during the trial.
Prosecutors said the patient died the next day at Nassau University Medical Center.
"You can imagine the relief that comes with a jury exonerating you ... of responsibility for a tragedy like the one in this case. But it's still not over," Augustine's attorney, Steven Christiansen, said after the partial verdict.
Reji's attorney, Michael Franzese, said the defense was "happy that the jury has seen through a lot of the discrepancies and inconsistencies" in the testimony of some prosecution witnesses.
Morland's attorney, James Toner, said he was surprised jurors weren't yet finished with all the counts, citing "plenty of reasonable doubt in the case."
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert Schwartz told jurors to return to court Tuesday to continue deliberations.
Zadek and Contrera's family declined to comment Monday. The jury also acquitted Reji and Augustine of falsifying business records in its verdict on nine of 14 counts.
During the trial, the defense insisted the health-care workers didn’t give emergency care to Contrera because an alarm didn't sound throughout the unit to warn that her ventilator was disconnected. Christiansen pointed out no alarm could be heard in the background of a 911 call.
Lawyers for the accused also attacked the management of the county facility, alleging understaffing meant employees were set up to fail, and saying administrators tried “to shift the blame” to the workers once “a foreseeable tragedy” happened. The defense also told jurors that evidence showed a respiratory therapist had “faked checking” ventilators and alarms, and falsified reports.
But Zadek told jurors the defendants showed a "gross deviation from the standard of care” by not responding to functional alarms and not reconnecting Contrera to the life support machine. He also argued an alarm wasn’t on the 911 tape because “it had already been unplugged from the wall.”