A Carson City jury returned a not-guilty verdict Wednesday, exonerating a couple charged with abusing a 78-year-old woman under their care.
After listening to almost four hours of closing arguments, the six-man, six-woman jury decided that Norma Childers and Nevada Cares Inc. did not commit felony or misdemeanor elder abuse. The jury deliberated for three hours.
Norma Childers and her husband, Mike Childers, were accused of ignoring signs of decline in the health of Camille Catalfano.
She lived under their care from September 1997 until she was admitted to Carson-Tahoe Hospital in February 1998. The Attorney General's Office argued that bed sores on her back and mold on Catalfano's dentures had developed as a result of negligence during those months.
"The observation I would make is that if they are going to do this to people like Mike and Norma, then no one will go into elderly care," defense attorney Bill Maddox said afterwards. "If you unleash a bunch of jackal lawyers on this industry, then it will be in sad state."
If convicted on the felony and misdemeanor counts, Norma Childers could have been sentenced to up to seven years in prison. The relieved couple hugged outside the courtroom and spoke among friends but would not comment on the trial.
During a lengthy closing argument, Deputy Attorney General Mark Kemberling said that although the evidence didn't line up perfectly, the jury "had the tools" to bring back a conviction.
"The evidence shows that they have a contractual agreement and they did not maintain daily observations of her health," he said. "By the end, her demeanor had changed to one-word answers and somewhat lethargic."
Maddox's closing argument highlighted health problems that may have contributed to Catalfano's decline. He said bed sores photographed shortly after Catalfano's hospital admission were exacerbated by diabetes, cancer and dementia.
"They didn't even come close to meeting the burden (of proof)," Maddox argued. "The underlying diseases, three of which were untreatable, were what caused this, not my clients."
He also pointed to a history of growth of Nevada Cares Inc. over 12 years that included more than 500 patients. He said a stream of families happy with the facility's care shows the couple's true mettle.
"We don't have to go out looking to blame someone," he said. "That's exactly what happened in this case.
"Mike and Norma are going to give perfect care to 599 residents and then ignore poor Camille?"
Since it opened Nevada Cares Inc. has grown from a five-bed facility to 118 beds. The company was sold last year to a Canada-based Royal Crest Living Centers. The Childerses have since opened Fresno Cares, an elderly care facility in Fresno, Calif.
Tim Terry, who heads the Medicaid fraud control unit for the attorney general, said his office disagrees "but respects the jury's decision."
"We never bring criminal charges unless we feel we have the evidence to win," he said. "These kinds of cases are difficult. There are certainly issues about the care that elderly people receive."
Judge Michael Fondi gave the jury members several options for conviction, including felony and misdemeanor charges against Norma Childers or the same against the Nevada Cares Inc. corporation.