Health & Medicine

Nurse pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter in veteran's death

Maria Kelly Whitt a former nurse at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington was charged with killing Jesse Lee Chain by injecting him with lethal levels of morphine.
Maria Kelly Whitt a former nurse at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington was charged with killing Jesse Lee Chain by injecting him with lethal levels of morphine.

Maria Kelly Whitt, a former nurse at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to involuntary manslaughter in the morphine overdose death of a 90-year-old World War II veteran.

Whitt, 33, of Mount Sterling, had been charged with murder in the Sept. 3, 2006, death of Jesse Lee Chain, whose hometown was Maysville.

Whitt admitted to administering 10 milligrams of morphine to Chain without a doctor's written orders, her attorney, Patrick Nash, said. Whitt administered the morphine to ease Chain's breathing, not to kill him, he said.

The U.S. district attorney's office will recommend that Whitt serve 16 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, according to a plea agreement filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Lexington.

"We will be asking the judge for a more lenient sentence," Nash said.

The maximum federal penalty for involuntary manslaughter is eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Whitt is scheduled to be sentenced April 1.

"I figured it would probably be one of those deals where they plead down as far as they could," said Chain's stepdaughter, Maxine Graybill of Plant City, Fla. "It's disheartening to say the least."

But, she said, "Daddy would have said, 'Let it go; God will take care of it.' I guess I should be praying to accept it like he would have."

Graybill said it just didn't seem fair that Whitt took an old and dying man's life. She said that four or five years in prison was not enough punishment for Whitt, although her stepfather would have asked that Whitt not be taken away from her children.

Whitt has two children.

"It's not right, I don't think," Chain's grandson David Chain of Hillsboro, Ohio, said of the plea deal. "I hope she never nurses again."

David Chain said that he and three other grandchildren of Jesse Chain had planned to come to Lexington for Whitt's trial, which had been set to begin Jan. 18. Now they'll be coming to the sentencing, he said.

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. After Chain's death, Whitt and another nurse, while cleaning his room, noticed the bottle of morphine was empty, and it shouldn't have been. An examination of the pump used to administer the morphine showed Chain had been given more morphine than the attending physician prescribed, the plea agreement filed in federal court says.

Whitt initially denied giving Chain any additional morphine. She later conceded that she did give Chain morphine that had not been authorized, that she did not document it and that it contributed to his death, according to the court document.

A federal investigator testified at an October 2009 hearing that at least two more patients at the VA hospital had died under suspicious circumstances while they were under Whitt's care.

"We are very adamant that those other two or three cases have nothing to do with Maria doing anything wrong," Nash said Monday.

Shortly after she was charged in Chain's death, Whitt was released to her mother, Bonnie Whitt, and placed on 24-hour house arrest and electronic monitoring. But in May the home incarceration and electronic monitoring stopped, a change that came after a pretrial services officer said she did not think Whitt posed a flight risk.

Nash said Whitt has been working at various jobs "doing the best she can to get by."

"She's devastated," he said.

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