Tuesday, November 7, 2017
C.A. Reverses Manslaughter Conviction of Caretaker Who Left the Premises
Yegan Says No Reasonable Jury Could Find Criminal Negligence Under Circumstances
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday reversed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a caregiver who left the house briefly to fetch medicine from a pharmacy and whose paralyzed patient died from asphyxiation when her ventilator became disconnected.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the judgment,” Acting Presiding Justice Kenneth Yegan of Div. Six wrote, “we conclude that no reasonable trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant was criminally negligent.”
The death of Heidi Good, 51—who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological disease that rendered her a quadriplegic—occurred in Solvang on the afternoon of March 25, 2013. While caregiver Wanda Nelson went to Rite Aid, Heidi Good’s mother, Marjorie Good, remained in the front yard, tending to gardening, except for peaking in on her daughter once.
Nelson, 63, and the mother, 89, were indicted May 1, 2015, on first-degree murder charges. They were tried separately.
Jurors in the mother’s case, while deadlocked, acknowledged learning through news reports of Nelson’s conviction and discussing it, leading Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores to declare a mistrial and grant a defense motion to have “not guilty” verdicts recorded on first degree- and second degree-murder charges. The prosecution opted not to retry her for manslaughter.
Arguments on Appeal
Nelson’s appointed attorney on appeal, Mark R. Feeser of San Luis Obispo, argued that substantial evidence of criminal negligence was lacking in light of evidence that Marjorie customarily attended to her daughter when no caregiver was present; “the ventilator rarely malfunctioned”; before going off to the pharmacy, Nelson checked the ventilator’s connections; she went on the errand on the patient’s instructions; she made it known she was leaving; and she assumed the mother would go inside to stay with her daughter.
Deputy Attorney General Robert Snider contended that there was criminal negligence because Nelson knew the ventilator connections did sometimes come off and the mother did not know how to effect a reconnection; the mother was outside when Nelson left, and did not articulate an intention of going inside; Nelson told the patient’s son she was leaving, not the mother; she was gone for at least half an hour; she knew the mother was hard of hearing and was using electric clippers, so that she would not be able to perceive the alarm sounding on the ventilator if a disconnection occurred.
Yegan pointed out in his unpublished opinion that Snider conceded at oral argument that the mother did know that Nelson was going to the pharmacy; testimony showed that the duty had not been imposed on Nelson to be with the patient every moment of her shift, and had previously gone for medicine and driven the son to school.
‘Not Objectively Unreasonable’
The jurist said:
“[A]ppellant knew that every weekday morning before she started her shift, Heidi was left alone with Marjorie for about two hours. In view of this arrangement, it was not objectively unreasonable for appellant to believe it was safe to leave Heidi alone with Marjorie for 30 minutes while she went to the pharmacy.”
He went on to say:
“[I]t was not objectively unreasonable for appellant to believe that, after she had left, Marjorie would stop gardening and go inside the house to care for Heidi. Appellant informed Marjorie that she was leaving. Marjorie therefore knew or should have known that she was in charge of Heidi until appellant returned. Marjorie told Heidi’s daughter that she had gone inside ‘almost immediately after...[appellant] left.’ She saw that Heidi was sleeping and ‘everything was fine.’ So she ‘went back outside.’ ”
Nelson, who was detained 10 months in jail following her arrest, was sentenced to a one-year term but. With credit for time served and good-time credits, she did not face further incarceration.
She was placed on five years of probation, a condition of which was not to serve again as a caregiver, and was ordered to pay restitution to the decedent’s husband.
The case is People v. Nelson, B271618.
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