Esther Lee Evans was suffering from diabetes and breathing problems before she died in a north Mississippi hospice in 2006, and her family had no reason to think her death was anything but natural.
So her daughters were stunned when authorities told them they were investigating Evans’ death and numerous others at the Sanctuary Hospice House in Tupelo.
“It was like somebody playing a bad prank on you,” said Evans’ daughter, Rebecca Dillard. “It was unbelievable. It just tore us apart.”
The hospice’s clinical director — charged with 11 counts of administering narcotics without a license — had been scheduled for trial Monday in Lee County Circuit Court, but a judge postponed it until next year.
Dr. Paul White, the facility’s medical director, and Marilyn Lehman, the clinical director, were charged in a 33-count indictment in April. White has pleaded guilty.
Lehman’s trial was postponed until February because her lawyer, Ronald Michael, had a scheduling conflict. Michael did not respond to messages this week, but has said Lehman is innocent.
Authorities, however, say the doctor allowed Lehman to determine doses and administer narcotics and then backdated the orders she had written.
Evans, 88, was admitted to the hospice in September 2006 suffering from diabetes and smoking related breathing problems. She had not been in the facility long when a nurse gave her medication to “help her relax,” Dillard said. The next day she couldn’t function. In a few days, she was dead.
The hospice’s attorney has repeatedly said that Evans’ death is not surprising or suspicious because she was terminally ill just like other hospice patients. The attorney, L.F. “Sandy” Sams, is emphatic that hospice employees did not hasten patients’ deaths.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood was not convinced.
Hood, whose office handled the investigation, has said some patients were “prematurely dying” because they were given such massive doses of morphine that “it was like a poison on the body.”
Hood would not comment this week because of the pending trial. He has told The Associated Press in the past that a grand jury was presented with several options, including that the hospice deaths were deliberate. They settled on misdemeanor charges of neglect, practicing medicine without a license and aiding and abetting.
It’s not clear if White will testify against his former employee. He struck a deal with prosecutors in June and pleaded guilty to six counts of aiding and abetting the practice of medicine without a license and one felony count of cyberstalking on the day his trial was to begin. He was sentenced to two years of probation and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
The cyberstalking charge was for sending obscene computer messages to people he thought caused the investigation, and included a threat to “disembowel” the facility’s former chaplain.
He blamed the messages on sleeping pills and alcohol.
Still, the relatives of some people who died at the hospice are angry that Lehman and White were not charged with more serious crimes. Some of them believe White and Lehman are directly responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. That allegation has been repeated in at least one federal lawsuit.
“This has devastated us. It has torn our family apart,” Dillard said. “You just stop and think if it was your mother or your dad. How you would feel? Do you understand what I’m saying. It’s just like a horror story that came off television or something.”
Other people who lost loved ones in the facility were angry, too, but for different reasons.
Relatives of several people whose loved ones were named as victims in the indictment were outraged, saying the hospice provided excellent care. And accusations of euthanasia polarized the community.
The nonprofit hospice opened in 2005 as a pilot project to provide affordable care to rural areas and was intended as a model for other communities. Millions have been donated to the facility and some of the most prominent people in north Mississippi have worked on its behalf.
Dozens of people packed the courtroom for White’s trial, with several people standing because they refused to sit among the families of the alleged victims.