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
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
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
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
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 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.