A Tennessee nurse was sentenced to probation on Friday after she was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for mistakenly killing a patient by giving her the wrong medication.
The criminal case of RaDonda Vaught—a 38-year-old former registered nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center—became a cause célèbre for those in her profession. Her prosecution sparked outrage and protests from nurses across the country and inspired a petition signed by more than 200,000 people demanding a judge grant her clemency.
Vaught faced up to eight years behind bars. But on Friday, after an hours-long hearing, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith ruled that Vaught qualified for judicial diversion. “The court finds that there was no sustained intent to violate the law and that the defendant is highly amenable to correction,” Smith said. “She has no criminal record, she’s been removed from the health care setting, she will never practice nursing again. This situation will never be repeated by Ms. Vaught.”
“This was a terrible, terrible mistake,” Smith continued, “and there have been consequences to the defendant. Serious personal consequences, financial consequences, professional consequences. And now public consequences in a criminal setting.”
Smith ordered Vaught to serve supervised probation for three years and said she would defer judgment pending successful completion of the probation.
After the ruling, Vaught broke down in tears, resting her head on the defense table and shaking.
Earlier that morning, hundreds of nurses gathered in downtown Nashville, wearing purple T-shirts with the hashtag “#IAmRaDonda” to support Vaught in face of a broken medical system. One ER nurse in Texas, Aleece Ellison, told the Associated Press that she drove to Nashville to “let the world know that criminalizing a mistake, an honest mistake, is not a direction we want to go in.” She said Vaught’s sentence could impact whether she stays in the field.
Inside the courthouse, Vaught came face to face with the loved ones of her victim: 75-year-old Charlene Murphey, who died in late December 2017 at Vanderbilt. Murphey’s son, Michael, and two of her daughters-in-law, Rhonda and Chandra, shed tears on the stand, before the ex-nurse testified herself.
“It’s really played a big toll on me,” Michael said on the stand. “I was at work when all this took place, and I didn’t get to say bye to my mom. Didn’t get to give her a hug or a kiss. And when they brought her back up, she had tubes running down her throat and stuff.”
“My dad suffers every day from this,” Michael added. “He goes out to the graveyard anywhere from three to four times a week and just sits out there and cries over it. Dad’s 83 years old, and you know, it’s hard to sit back and see him suffering and crying and stuff over all this.”
Michael said that knowing his mother, who was a forgiving person, she wouldn’t want to see Vaught serve significant jail time. His father, however, thinks she should receive the maximum sentence.
Daughter-in-law Chandra Murphey, who is married to Michael, testified that her family hasn’t had peace or closure for four years and the situation has “just been sickening to us.” Chandra said, “We did so much together as a family, and it just ended, in a split second for us.”
“Speaking on behalf of my father in law… he cries every day. It hurts us to see him hurt so bad, and he has stated that he wanted her to have the max,” Chandra said. “But we forgive her… my mother-in-law would want her to be forgiven, and jail time is not an option to me for her.”
Still, Chandra added of Vaught, “In the past 4.5 years, our family’s been waiting, and it would have been nice to have heard, at least, ‘I’m sorry,’ come out of her mouth, and it hasn’t. But deep down we’re sure she is sorry.” Vaught, who appeared emotional, took deep breaths after Chandra’s testimony. (Vaught’s lawyer pointed out the former nurse did express remorse publicly, but Chandra clarified not directly to her family.)
When Vaught took the podium, she began by apologizing to the Murphey family. “I’m sorry that I haven’t said it to you sooner. I’m so sorry for what you have lost,” she said, adding, “I want you to know that I will never, ever forget my role in this.”
“Saying I’m sorry doesn’t seem like enough but you deserve to hear that and you deserve to know that I am very sorry for what happened,” Vaught added.
Vaught addressed the judge and said of Murphey, “Numerous times a day I think about her.”
“People walk up to me on the street and offer hugs and condolences and my first thought is they’re hugging me but someone else is gone because of that.”
Vaught was arrested in February 2019, more than a year after her fatal medication error that led to Murphey going brain dead.
Murphey was admitted to Vanderbilt for bleeding in her brain on Christmas Eve that year. Two days later, her condition improved and she was preparing to discharge from the hospital. But, according to the Tennessean, Murphey needed a final scan in the radiology department first. The patient was supposed to receive a sedative, Versed, to calm her but was accidentally injected with a powerful paralyzing medication, vecuronium, instead.
Vaught was ordered to collect the Versed from a computerized medication cabinet but grabbed vecuronium instead, leading to Murphey becoming brain dead. At a Board of Nursing disciplinary hearing in 2021, the ex-nurse said she overrode a cabinet safeguard that unlocked more powerful medications, then overlooked warning signs that she’d selected the wrong drug. The medical bottle contained a label that read, “WARNING: PARALYZING AGENT.”
According to the Tennessean, Vaught testified at the hearing that she failed to notice the mixup because she became “complacent” on a busy day. Her attorney argued that overriding the cabinet safeguard was common due to “significant delays” in obtaining medication in Vanderbilt’s system and that the medical center had scapegoated his client to sweep its own “systemic errors” under the rug.
In March, a jury found Vaught guilty of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide after a three-day trial. She was acquitted of reckless homicide. After the verdict, the American Nurses Association and Tennessee Nurses Association issued a statement that read, “We are deeply distressed by this verdict and the harmful ramifications of criminalizing the honest reporting of mistakes.”
“The nursing profession is already extremely short-staffed, strained and facing immense pressure—an unfortunate multi-year trend that was further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic,” the statement added. “This ruling will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.”
During Friday’s hearing, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent Ramona Smith, who interviewed Vaught after Murphey’s death, testified that the nurse didn’t seem “remorseful” about what happened.
“Her remorse during the case was of the attitude, in my opinion as an investigator, that she felt by telling the truth it would all go away, and that she should be rewarded for being honest.”
“And I appreciate honesty. … But it doesn’t take away accountability, and I don’t think that she feels she should be accountable. She feels someone else should be accountable.”
After the agent’s testimony, Vanderbilt nurse Elizabeth Kessinger testified that she helped train Vaught, who she described as “motivated” and “resilient.”
“She always went above and beyond with the patients. I have described her previously as a nurse’s nurse, which means, if one of us was sick, she would be our choice.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism