Monday, March 29, 2010

Pennsylvania nurse receives sentence of 7-20 years for morphine death of 11-year-old with CP

From The Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer-Journal:

Two families tearfully told a Lancaster County judge March 24 of their losses.

Brent Weaver's mother (pictured with her husband) said that when her 11-year-old son died, "we lost a very special member of our family," and "we'll have to deal with this the rest of our lives."

Joy O'Shea Woomer's family and friends said the loss of her company because of her imprisonment has darkened their lives.

"There is no escaping the fact that the death of Brent Weaver and the circumstances of this case are tragic for all concerned," Judge David Ashworth said to the families, supporters and spectators who filled his courtroom on March 24.

"There are no winners," Ashworth said, "only losers in this matter."

A jury convicted Woomer of third-degree murder for giving Brent Weaver a lethal dose of morphine. For that, Ashworth sentenced her to 7 to 20 years in prison.

The sentence, which will take into account the time she has served in prison already, was within the state guidelines, but well below the maximum possible penalty of 20 to 40 years in prison.

Woomer, 50, who cried as she expressed her love for her family, quoted Scripture and thanked her supporters, showed no reaction when the sentence was imposed.

Nor did members of the Weaver family, who sat stoically in the jury box during approximately two hours of testimony before the sentence was imposed.

The victim's father, Mark Weaver, told Ashworth how Brent was born prematurely and diagnosed four weeks later with cerebral palsy.

Weaver said he and his wife, Carol, agreed from the beginning that Brent would be included in all family activities, along with their two younger sons.

Then, on Sept. 27, 2002, Weaver said, "Suddenly, just as he arrived," Brent "was gone."

"It's difficult to explain the love of a special-needs child," Weaver told the judge. "Brent taught me how to truly love and I am eternally grateful. I miss him very much."

"His smile motivated me to be the best mom I could be," the boy's mother, Carol Weaver, told Ashworth.

It was Carol Weaver who briefed Woomer, a private-duty nurse, when she came to care for Brent inside their family's East Hempfield Township home the night before he died.

Contrary to trial testimony, Carol Weaver said she never forbade Woomer from turning on the lights or going inside Brent's bedroom.

Carol Weaver said, since it was Woomer's first night in their home, she repeatedly told the licensed practical nurse to call her if she needed anything.

Joseph Weaver, 16, asked Ashworth "to impose a fair sentence for what she did to my brother that night."

"She did not tell the truth. She did not confess," the teenager said of Woomer. "She's a murderer and a liar."

But several of Woomer's supporters described another type of person, one whom they said is good, caring, honest, kind and supportive of others.

Her deep faith in God has never wavered, they told Ashworth, and she has continued to support others while she's been incarcerated in county prison during the past 17 months.

Thomas O'Shea, Woomer's brother, said he has been overwhelmed by the kindness and support of those who have reached out to help his sister, both financially and emotionally.

"Joy has always been the star of our family," O'Shea said, describing her as the capable, caring one who everyone in his family depended upon.

It was his sister who sang at weddings, entertained the children at family gatherings and sat with her parents during hospital stays, O'Shea said.

By imprisoning her, O'Shea said, the judge was taking away their joy — "literally and figuratively."

Rebecca Woomer, the defendant's 14-year-old daughter, sobbed, describing her mother as her "best friend."

"I know whenever I'm around her, I'm in good hands. Her spirit is what keeps me going through everything tough, everything hard. I need her home," the teenager pleaded. "I love my mom and I miss her."

James Woomer, the defendant's 20-year-old son, said his mother "is a caring person — that's one of the reasons she went into health care."

"She is the one I look up to," he said, "and the person I aspire to be."

Assistant District Attorney Randall Miller acknowledged the positive qualities of Woomer's life.

But, Miller said, Woomer had access to syringes and morphine, and reminded the court that an 11-year-old child was given a lethal dose of non-prescribed morphine.

"What is worse than having to bury your own child," Miller said.

"These people truly considered their firstborn a gift," Miller said of the Weavers. "They were in this for the duration and his death left a void that will never be filled."

Miller asked that Woomer be ordered to pay $6,715 restitution, which include the cost of burial, a headstone and the unsuccessful emergency treatment for their son.

"I am deeply sorry for the loss of your son," Woomer told the Weavers, when she was given an opportunity to speak. "There is no greater pain than the loss of a child."

Turning then to look at her family and friends that filled two benches in the back of the courtroom, Woomer wept and said, "I love you more than words can ever express."

"Thank you for enveloping me with your love and support," she said.

She thanked her friends, from church and in the medical profession, "who know me and know my heart and my honesty" and took the time to write to the judge.

Woomer quoted Biblical passages about the strength-giving, all-encompassing power of love.

"Love abides in our family," Woomer said, adding that "no prison walls can tear us apart if we cling to each other."

Woomer concluded by asking the judge for leniency, asking him to consider "the good things I have done" and "how much I have to share."

Defense attorney Christopher Patterson told the judge he easily could have had 50 character witnesses testify on Woomer's behalf, describing her as an honest, caring, loving person.

In all his years of practicing law, Patterson said, he had never seen such an outpouring of support for an individual.

"She's lost her freedom, her reputation," Patterson said. He also asked the judge to consider all the good Woomer has done in her life.

Ashworth said he considered the many supportive letters he received and said, by all accounts, Woomer is "an involved, caring mother," a respected nurse, valuable member of her church and contributing member of this community.

"She is loved by many and has contributed much to those who have come to know her," Ashworth said.

"Just as a person is held responsible for past crimes and negative behaviors," Ashworth said he also gave Woomer credit for having "lived a productive, law-abiding life."

But, Ashworth said, "this was not a case of someone giving too much of a prescribed medication."

"We may never know why (Woomer) chose to give Brent Weaver morphine. Whether she intended to end Brent's suffering or merely ease his pain temporarily, we may never know."

The law does not require proof of motive, Ashworth said, adding that only Woomer knows her reasons, "and she has refused to tell us."

The judge also addressed the jury's decision in this case and those who may disagree with its verdict.

"Nowhere," in the law, Ashworth said, "is it acceptable to try a person accused of a crime in the court of public opinion."

"We do not try cases in the media. We do not try cases based upon newspaper reports or TV sound bites," Ashworth said, "and we do not determine a person's guilt or innocence based upon Internet blogs or online opinions."

The jurors in this case were carefully chosen by attorneys on both sides from a group of nearly 200 randomly selected citizens, he said.

"None of the 12 jurors who decided this case asked to be on the jury. None of them had an agenda. All of them had a tremendous responsibility and a difficult task to sit in judgment of one of their fellow citizens," Ashworth said.

"Unless you sat in that jury box for two weeks, saw and heard all of the evidence, observed the witnesses as they testified, were instructed on the law and engaged in deliberations with 11 other people, you simply do not have all the tools necessary to decide this case properly."

By reaching a verdict of third-degree murder, Ashworth said, the jury did not find that Woomer specifically intended to kill the child.

By reaching such a verdict, however, Ashworth said, "The jury concluded that (Woomer) administered a lethal dose of morphine," with a "willful disregard … and extremely high risk that it would result in death or serious bodily injury.

"This is an entirely different case than a person making a tragic error in judgment and immediately coming forward and taking responsibility for her actions."

(That statement was possibly a reference to a recent case in which a doctor pleaded guilty to recklessly endangering another person, admitting he gave his son pain medication. The child died the following day.)

During the trial, Ashworth said, Woomer took the witness stand and denied giving morphine to Brent Weaver.

Based on the jury's verdict, Ashworth said, the jury concluded that Woomer "was not being truthful and certainly was not demonstrating any remorse."

"Above all," Ashworth said, "it must be remembered that the defendant murdered 11-year-old Brent Weaver."