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Trial for hospice nurse delayed to February

By HOLBROOK MOHR

Associated Press Writer

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - 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 cyber stalking

on the day his trial was to begin. He was sentenced to two years of

probation and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The cyber stalking 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.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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