Going against the recommendation made by prosecutors and federal sentencing guidelines, U.S. Senior Judge Karl S. Forester on Friday opted against more jail time for a former nurse at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the morphine overdose death of a World War II veteran in 2006.
Forester sentenced Maria Kelly Whitt to the time she served in jail just after her arrest, which was eight or nine days. He also sentenced Whitt, who appeared before him, to two years of supervised release. He said the supervised release would not include testing Whitt for drug abuse.
After the sentencing, Whitt and her family and friends hugged and cried tears of joy in a courthouse hallway. At the same time, a stepdaughter and step-granddaughter of Jesse Lee Chain, 90, also cried, but their tears on the courthouse steps were of sadness, anger and frustration.
"He served in World War II. He loved the VA. I feel like they let him down," said the stepdaughter, Tammy Mealing of Maysville.
Mealing and Alison Bellew, Chain's step-granddaughter, also of Maysville, said they were upset because Forester did not allow them to read letters they had written about the effect Chain's death and the circumstances surrounding it have had on them. And they were angry because Whitt had pointed the finger at them after Chain's death, and authorities had harassed them for two years to try to get them to admit guilt.
Chain was given a slow morphine drip about 10 a.m. Sept. 3, 2006. He was pronounced dead just after 4:30 p.m. that day. An examination of the pump used to administer the morphine showed Chain had been given more of the drug than was prescribed, according to court records.
Whitt, 33, of Mount Sterling pleaded guilty in January to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Chain, whose hometown was Maysville.
Whitt was charged with murder just after her arrest in fall 2009, but she later reached a plea deal with prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West recommended at Friday's hearing that Whitt serve 16 months in prison.
"I can't place a value on Mr. Chain's life," he said. West said he had heard other people comment that Chain was going to die soon anyway, so what did it matter? But, he said, Chain's life did matter.
West said Whitt deliberately administered unauthorized morphine to Chain and initially denied she had done so, pointing the finger at others.
Whitt's attorney, Patrick Nash, argued for probation. He said Whitt got the investigation into Chain's death going by notifying hospital personnel about an empty morphine bottle in Chain's room. Nash said that Whitt pleaded guilty to giving Chain one unauthorized dose of morphine, but that Chain was given multiple doses of morphine without written doctor's orders when Whitt was not present.
"She can't be held accountable for things she didn't do," Nash said.
He said earlier in the hearing that Whitt was a single mother of two with no criminal history.
"She's not going to be a nurse again," he said. "She's out of that business now, for better or worse."
A tearful Whitt told the judge she should have insisted on a written doctor's order before she administered the morphine to Chain, but she did not.
"I am truly sorry ... I would never do anything intentionally or maliciously to harm anyone," she said.
She apologized to Chain's family, her family and friends, and personnel at the VA hospital off Cooper Drive.
Just before announcing the sentence, Forester said Whitt was not entitled to probation under federal sentencing guidelines. But he said the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in another case that the guidelines were advisory and that following them was not mandatory.
Under federal statutes, which are absolute and must be followed, a judge may decide against prison time or hand down a maximum prison penalty of eight years for involuntary manslaughter.
"Certainly this case involves a very serious offense," Forester said. He said Whitt had abused the public's trust.
But the judge said Whitt had held a nursing license for about 14 months and had not received training in palliative care before Chain's death. He said that Whitt had seen other nurses administering extra doses and that hospital records indicated Whitt was not in Chain's room when other extra doses were administered.
Chain was actively dying of natural causes, and Forester said there was no evidence Whitt wanted to kill Chain.
The judge said Whitt has been the target of negative publicity, has been devastated financially and has had difficulty finding a job since she was charged in Chain's death. Had Whitt been charged with involuntary manslaughter from the beginning, there wouldn't have been as much publicity about the case, Forester said.
The judge said there was no reason to think Whitt is a danger to society.
Forester noted that he had received many letters of support for Whitt, including from fellow nurses. The judge did not allow Mealing and Bellew, who arrived at the hearing just before he sentenced Whitt, to read their letters in court because they were late.
The women said later that they ran out of gas and had a flat tire on their way from Maysville to Lexington. They said they had notified someone in the U.S. Attorney's Office that they would be late.
"I don't think it's right. I think they could have been nice enough to give us five minutes of their time," Bellew said.
"Me and my niece, we were accused for two years of this murder," said Mealing, who, with Bellew, had visited with Chain on the day he died.
Whitt was released to her mother, Bonnie Whitt, and placed on 24-hour house arrest and electronic monitoring shortly after she was charged in Chain's death in October 2009. Last May, after a pretrial services officer said Whitt did not pose a flight risk, the home incarceration and electronic monitoring were stopped.
"Maria has been punished in lots of ways for a long time," Nash said after Friday's sentencing. The attorney said he "absolutely" thought justice was served in her case.