A federal judge has released from jail a nurse charged in the death of a Veterans Affairs Medical Center patient.
Maria K. Whitt, 32, was placed under house arrest and released to her mother, Bonnie Whitt, who lives in Mount Sterling. Bonnie Whitt testified Wednesday that she had a list of 24 people who would be willing to randomly check on her daughter, including Mount Sterling Mayor Gary Williamson, if U.S. Magistrate Judge James B. Todd decided to release her.
Maria Whitt appeared in court Wednesday for a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Lexington handcuffed and wearing a green jumpsuit. The former VA hospital nurse is charged with murder in the death of World War II veteran Jesse Lee Chain, 90, who died of a morphine overdose Sept. 3, 2006. Whitt has pleaded not guilty. Her trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 7.
Independence attorney Eric Deters said he has been retained by the Chain family.
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"Based upon what we know, we anticipate filing a lawsuit next week, so we can conduct a full investigation," Deters said in a statement.
Patrick Nash, who represents Whitt, said his client's case is complicated, but it is not consistent with a first-degree murder charge. She is "focused on defending herself," he said.
Whitt was arrested by federal authorities Oct. 6, shortly after being indicted by a federal grand jury on a murder charge. She was being held at the Grayson County Detention Center.
The indictment says Whitt "willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation and malice aforethought" injected Chain with "lethal levels of morphine" that killed him.
Two days after Whitt's arrest, a special agent in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General testified at a hearing that at least two more patients died under suspicious circumstances while under her care.
In the wake of the criminal charges, Whitt has been suspended from her nursing job at St. Joseph-Mount Sterling hospital, where she had worked since February. Bonnie Whitt testified Wednesday said that the state suspended her daughter's nursing license.
During Wednesday's detention hearing, Special Agent Rick Ellison said during testimony that Maria Whitt had admitted in verbal and written statements that she gave Chain several doses of morphine but did not intend to kill him. Whitt told investigators that she administered the morphine to ease Chain's pain and her own workload, Ellison said.
The special agent said Whitt told him: "I would never intentionally do anything to harm a patient in any way."
Ellison said Whitt told investigators during an interview that Chain had been struggling to breathe, so she gave him 10 milligrams of morphine, "what she thought was a palliative dose," several times.
Whitt said she had seen other nurses administer similar doses and had never seen a deadly outcome, Ellison testified.
When questioned by investigators, Ellison said, the other nurses denied that they had ever given morphine to patients without a doctor's orders.
As for her workload, Ellison said Whitt told him the hospital's intensive care unit was overwhelmed with patients the day of Chain's death, which made her feel "overwhelmed and overworked." Whitt said she was unable to give Chain "the proper level of care he required," so she gave him morphine so "she could focus her attention on other matters in the ICU," Ellison testified.
On the day Chain died, Ellison said, Whitt told him she had been responsible for two or three patients and was assisting other nurses, which is an average workload for the intensive care unit.
Three days after Chain's death, Whitt filed a worker's compensation claim because she said she suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Ellison testified. The federal government denied the claim, and she didn't seek further claims or treatment.
Ellison has said Whitt initially tried to blame Chain's family and another nurse for administering the morphine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger W. West said during court Wednesday that Whitt lied because was scared and worried about her children, a 14-year-old and a 2-year-old.
"She lied because she was terrified," West said. "... She did it because she was scared and wanted to put the focus on other people."