Murder charge dismissed

January 13, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SNOW HILL -- Murder charges against a former Hartley Hall Nursing Home employee were dropped abruptly in midtrial yesterday after the facility's medical director -- called as a key prosecution witness -- shocked the courtroom with accounts of unusual and possibly illegal nursing home policies, including one that had him sign blank death certificates.

"I never saw a case self-destruct before me like this," said Worcester County Deputy State's Attorney Joel J. Todd after a judge granted his motion to dismiss the charges against Marjorie Karen Alpaugh.

After getting astonishing glimpses into nursing home procedures as revealed from the witness stand, Mr. Todd said he now will determine if criminal charges should be brought against the home's administrators.

A grand jury indicted Mrs. Alpaugh, 52, the former Hartley Hall director of nurses, on murder and drug charges in March after the state medical examiner found traces of morphine in the remains of Maidie Lang Shay.

Mrs. Shay, a 91-year-old patient at the Pocomoke City nursing home, died Jan. 29, 1992. Rumors that the patient had been the victim of a lethal and unauthorized dose of morphine prompted an investigation that led to the indictments of Mrs. Alpaugh and two other nursing home employees.

Through her attorneys, Mrs. Alpaugh contended that the Hartley Hall medical director, Dr. Edward J. Colwell, had approved giving Mrs. Shay a dose of Roxanol, a form of morphine. Defense lawyer James V. Anthenelli argued that Mrs. Shay's death was due to natural causes and not to what he said was an authorized, therapeutic dose of the drug.

In testimony Monday, Dr. Colwell had told Mr. Todd that he did not order Roxanol for Mrs. Shay because the woman was comatose and the drug was unnecessary as she was unable to feel pain.

But under questioning yesterday by defense co-counsel James L. Otway, Dr. Colwell used Mrs. Shay's medical chart to describe the woman's daily condition up to the time of her death. The record never indicated she was comatose.

Asked again -- this time by Mr. Otway -- if he had prescribed Roxanol for Mrs. Shay, the doctor stopped short of saying he was sure he had not. "To the best of my knowledge, I did not," he answered with an uncertainty that Judge Theodore R. Eschenburg noted later when he agreed to dismiss the charges against Mrs. Alpaugh.

Dr. Colwell also conceded yesterday that he and Hartley Hall nurses arranged "pain plans" for patients that enabled nursing home officials to step up the use of pain-killing medication. In some cases, witnesses said, nurses gave patients stronger medication than had been prescribed and informed Dr. Colwell of their decisions later.

Yesterday's bombshell in the courtroom came when Dr. Colwell volunteered that Hartley Hall officials kept on hand blank death certificates bearing his signature as the attending physician.

He said if he were not present to determine why a patient had died, the nursing director would fill in the form. As part of an agreement hurriedly worked out yesterday, Mrs. Alpaugh pleaded guilty to a new but lesser charge of storing morphine illegally in her nursing home office.

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