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Common Sense Prevails As Nurse Acquitted

Fri, 02/12/2010 - 4:53am

Anne Mitchell, a nurse at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in the small West Texas town of Kermit, was acquitted after authorities had charged her with “misuse of official information” following her filling a complaint with the Texas Medical Board regarding what she felt were unsafe practices by Dr. Roland Arafiles, Jr. The third-degree felony charge carried a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a $10,000 fine.

Mitchell had filed an anonymous complaint that the emergency room physician had been improperly prescribing medications and doing surgical procedures when he had no surgical privileges. Rather than being recognized as a whiste-blower concerned about the health and welfare of the patients, she was arrested.

The trial took four days, but the jury needed less than an hour to acquit Mitchell. Though this was a victory for a conscientious nurse, she has lost her job and her reputation has been damaged. The jury panel of six men and six women voted unanimously on the first ballot, and questioned why Mrs. Mitchell had ever been arrested.

The case has so polarized the small town that the judge moved the trial to a neighboring county. The case was investigated by Sheriff Robert L. Roberts Jr., a friend and admiring patient of Dr. Arafiles, and tried by the county attorney, Scott M. Tidwell, a political ally of the sheriff and, according to testimony, Dr. Arafiles’s personal lawyer.

Sheriff Roberts said he was disappointed in the verdict but did not regret the prosecution. Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, a co-worker who helped her write the anonymous letter to the medical board, were fired by the hospital last June, shortly before being indicted. The charges against Galle were dismissed late last month at the prosecutor’s discretion.

The nurses have filed in federal suit against the county, the hospital and various officials, charging that the firings and indictments amounted to a violation of due process and their First Amendment rights.

Mitchell’s lawyer, John H. Cook IV, walked the jury through a series of questionable cases involving Dr. Arafiles, including one in which the doctor performed a skin graft in the hospital’s emergency room, despite not having surgical privileges, and another where he sutured a rubber tip to a patient’s crushed finger for protection.

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