RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (AP) — Five employees of a suburban New York nursing home are defending themselves against charges they disregarded alarms for more than two hours, leading to the death of a 72-year-old bedridden patient who was not connected to a ventilator.
Opening statements in the complicated double-jury trial began Tuesday in state Supreme Court in Riverhead, on eastern Long Island.
The five defendants are among nine workers at the Medford Multicare Center for Living Inc. charged in the October 2012 death of Aurelia Rios of Central Islip. Two of the nine have pleaded guilty, while two others are expected to face trial this summer. The corporate entity that runs the nursing home also is facing charges in the woman's death.
In the case of the remaining five, state Supreme Court Justice John Collins decided to conduct one trial to save time but have two separate juries hear testimony simultaneously. One jury is considering the case against Kethlie Joseph, a respiratory therapist accused of failing to connect a respirator to Rios and later ignoring pagers and other alarms indicating she was in distress.
The second jury is considering the case against four others — the director of respiratory therapy and three nurses — who are accused of falsifying business records and other charges stemming from the woman's death. All five have pleaded not guilty.
During her first opening statement in the case against Joseph, prosecutor Veronica MacDevitt said Joseph was charged with criminally negligent homicide for failing to ensure that Rios was connected to a ventilator. "It was the most basic and most fundamental aspect of her job," MacDevitt said. She added that later, when electronic monitors and other indicators showed that the patient was in distress, Joseph and others disregarded the alarms.
Defense attorney Jonathan Manley countered that Joseph had to care for 20 patients the night Rios died, and he questioned the effectiveness of a pager alarm system that he said went off constantly throughout the night for both serious and incidental problems.
"You hear an alarm every second of every day," Manley said. "A beeper is not a reliable indicator of a patient's health."
He added there was a nurse in Rios' room throughout the night, and that when Joseph was finally informed that there was a problem with the patient, she took immediate steps to get her the proper care.
"An alarm doesn't indicate a health problem, it indicates a mechanical failure," he said.
Later Tuesday, MacDevitt laid out the case against the four other employees before a separate jury. She said each in their own way either failed to respond to alarms indicating the patient was in distress or subsequently lied to investigators about Rios' death.
"Someone else's failure doesn't excuse their failures," MacDevitt said.
Although opening statements were conducted separately before each jury, the judge indicated that for the majority of the trial, both juries would hear testimony simultaneously. The trial, expected to last five to six weeks, is being held in a large courtroom in the Suffolk County Court complex. Although rare, other double-jury trials have been held in the county.
Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the Medford facility, called the trial "a very complicated case. The facts will be presented to the judge. And we will prove that Medford's patient commitment was not lacking."
Among the expected expert witnesses is a Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and host of HBO's "Autopsy."