Dissecting Coverage of Nursing Home Deaths (Part 2)

Yesterday, I discussed coverage from late 2006 and early 2007 involving an investigation into suspicious deaths at a nursing home in Woodstock, IL.

Last week, two ex-employees of the Woodstock Residence nursing home were indicted on multiple charges. More on those charges later.

The first news I had of this was via an email message from a colleague, containing a link to an NBC5 story titled “Two Nursing Home Workers Charged in Alleged Mercy Killings.” The term was used in other news reports as well.

As Yogi Berra famously said, it was “deja vu all over again.”

At first, I assumed that reporters were just going back to their old stories and picking up the term from stories they wrote during the initial time of the investigation.

I even assumed – at first – that they were pushing this term with no clear evidence for doing so when I read this bit in a story by Liam Ford, Carolyn Starks and Vikki Ortiz in the Chicago Tribune:

Even as they announced indictments against Marty Himebaugh, 57, and her supervisor, Penny Whitlock, 59, prosecutors refused to offer a motive or to say whether six suspicious deaths at the Woodstock Residence between 2004 and 2006 were mercy killings.

Generally, when a reporter says that an official refused to say something it was in response to a specific question that was asked – in this case we can assume the prosecutors were asked if the suspicious deaths were “mercy killings.”

Feeling that I needed a better handle on what was happening here, I contacted attorney Steven Levin, who is representing a family of one of the alleged victims. He will be filing a nursing home abuse and wrongful death law suit on behalf of the family against Woodstock Residence and the two ex-employees who are facing criminal charges.

Levin was very helpful with some key factual information. First, he pointed out that the charges against Himebaugh and Whitlock didn’t involve any murder, homicide or manslaughter charges. He also steered me toward the indictments themselves, for a key phrase that is bound to cause continual confusion.

In this context, the important document is the Bill of Indictment against Penny Whitlock, the ex-director of the nursing home (link to pdf file).

Counts III and IV in the indictment are virtually identical, accusing Whitlock of “criminal neglect of a long term care facility resident.” Here’s the “money quote” in these two counts:

“…Penny Whitlock, while acting in the capacity of Director of Woodstock Residence, a long term care facility, recklessly encouraged Marty Himebaugh, an employee of Woodstock Residence, to continue actions which constituted abuse or neglect of a long term care facility resident by stating that Marty Himebaugh could continue to play the “Angel of Death” in the facility after receiving a report of the alleged abuse or neglect…”

As colleagues and readers of this blog know, I’m not generally all that sympathetic toward reporters who blow it when covering stories involving old, ill or disabled people. But I have at least a little sympathy this time.

Here we have a case that involved the exhumations of several ex-residents of a nursing home. Their deaths are regarded as “suspicious.” The charges against the individuals, however, don’t involve any accusations of actually causing the death of anyone. That’s already confusing.

To top it off, the grand jury plants the “Angel of Death” bombshell in Whitlock’s indictment. That term is loaded with multiple meanings and a lot of mythology – but all the meanings and mythology involve someone killing people.

The Northwest Herald has a video of the press conference in which prosecutors announced the charges here.

At the end of the conference, reporters zero right in on the “Angel of Death” reference, trying to get clarification on just how they should interpret that. Frankly, the answers from the prosecutors are pretty jumbled and don’t make much sense, and in the end fall back on steering people back to the indictments. Going back and rereading the indictments, of course, won’t really be any help at all.

I’ll go even farther with my concerns regarding the “Angel of Death” bomb. Since Whitlock and Himebaugh are entitled to a presumption of innocence until and unless proven guilty, it’s troubling that this term associates them with acts that they’re not charged with. In the public’s mind, an “Angel of Death” is someone who kills.

Aside from the concerns regarding the term’s effect on the defendants, there are also problems that the term – and how it’s used – might make the public feel it’s OK even if they are guilty. Part of the mythology with “Angels of Death” involves treating that term as a version of “Angel of Mercy” – an “Angel of Death” being a medical professional who kills out of mercy – repeatedly, until caught and stopped.

Frank Main and Dan Rozek of the Chicago Sun-Times demonstrate this conflation in a little bit they threw in about a convicted medical serial killer in “Were deaths at nursing home mercy killings?”

In 1992, a mercy-killing case stunned the nation when Brian K. Rosenfeld pleaded guilty to murdering three elderly patients with drug overdoses. Rosenfeld, who allegedly admitted killing 23 patients, was sentenced to life in prison in Florida. A boast by Rosenfeld led to the exhumation of five drugged bodies.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Main or Rozek that someone who admits to killing 23 elderly people might be operating on some motive a little darker that wanting to provide “mercy.”

This case will be an ongoing one and will be a source of countless stories while it plays out in the legal arena. During that time, I’d urge Main, Rozek and any other reporter covering this story or similar ones to do a little research.

I’ll even give them a head start. Doing a little digging of my own, I found this USA Today article from 2003 titled “Angels of mercy: The dark side“:

Some analysts say that nurses who kill patients do so for a variety of reasons. Orville Majors, convicted of six counts of murder in Indiana in 1999, was sick of complaining patients. Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse convicted of murder in Texas in 1984, apparently enjoyed watching babies go into cardiac arrest.

Yorker said some killers are motivated by “Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” a psychological disorder attributed to those who create medical emergencies in those under their care to draw attention to themselves.

But possibly the biggest reason that some nurses kill is that they can.

They have access to patients who are often very sick, very old or very young — and access to drugs powerful enough to kill unobtrusively through an intravenous tube. And they work at institutions with an inherent aversion to litigation and publicity.

This is just the tip of iceberg. I know that at least one of the experts in this article, forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland (not quoted in excerpt above), has published a book about serial killers in medical settings.

If some of the local media delved into this phenomenon and just what is known and suspected about so-called “Angels of Death,” we might see a sharp drop-off of the use of the term “mercy killing” in future coverage of this particular case, anyway. –Stephen Drake

Addendum: For the record, according to the same Chicago Tribune story linked at the top of this entry, here are the specific charges against Himebaugh and Whitlock:

Himebaugh, a licensed practical nurse, faces four counts of felony neglect of a long-term resident in connection with overdosing patients with morphine, a felony charge of obtaining a substance by fraud and a felony charge of unlawful distribution of morphine.

Whitlock, of Woodstock, was arrested at the nursing home Friday. A registered nurse, she was charged with five counts of felony neglect of a long-term resident and two felony counts of obstruction of justice. She destroyed drugs to impede the investigation, according to her indictment.

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