(25. – 912.) Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult – When I read a book featuring the defence of a criminal charge I, as a defence counsel in part of my real life legal practice, inevitably go through the book assessing the case presented by the author. My review of Small Great Things in this post and my next post will follow my assessment of the murder charge against Ruth Jefferson. My reactions and/or thoughts as a lawyer are in italics. Some of my remarks will be spoilers if a reader wants to limit their knowledge of the plot. I do not reveal the result of the trial but there may be more information than some readers would like in a review. (While I have defended many types of charges and assisted on murder cases I have never conducted the full defence of a charge of murder.)
In Small Great Things Ruth is a labour and delivery nurse at Mercy - West Haven Hospital. She has been working as a nurse at the hospital for over 20 years and is well respected for her skills and professionalism.
A jury will start out with respect for her as a dedicated health care professional.
One night she is called to assist with Davis Bauer, the newborn child of Brit and her husband, Turk, who is described as “hulking”. They are white supremacists appalled that Ruth, who prefers to be referred to as a woman of color rather black or African American, is his nurse. Turk insists the nursing supervisor put a note on the chart that no one like Jefferson can take care of the baby.
Race is going to be an issue in the trial. Will it help or hurt the defence?
While reluctant the supervisor posts a hot pink Post-It note on the chart saying:
NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT.
I think the hospital is in real trouble civilly when a supervisor posts such a note and it remains on the chart. Criminally the note is making the accused a victim.
During her examination of the baby Jefferson detects a possible heart murmur.
A day later, Davis is recovering from an operation for circumcision when there is an emergency C-section taking the other nurses from the ward and Ruth is directed to watch the baby. While she watches him he stops breathing. Uncertain what do because of the note she freezes but then assesses the baby. Hearing someone coming she wraps up the baby. She tells the supervisor returning to the ward that she was doing nothing. Ruth has lied and repeats the lie during the subsequent investigation and to her lawyer.
Lying, even well motivated lying, to another witness is harmful but more often than you would expect not decisive in a criminal case. Lying to your lawyer is stupid though it happens all too often.
The supervising nurse takes charge and a full scale effort is made to resuscitate Davis. Ruth is directed to commence compressions. Using two fingers she begins compressions of the baby’s chest. At one point she is told her compressions are too intense. Despite all efforts Davis dies.
What is the actual cause of death?
…. Hypoglycemia leading to hypoglycemic seizure leading to respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest.
How is Ruth legally responsible for such a death? What is the expert evidence in support of the official cause of death? Could there be another cause?
Ruth is charged: count one is murder and count two is negligent homicide.
Murder is a reach. Where is her pre-meditation? She had no idea she was going to be put in charge of monitoring the baby. With regard to compressing the baby’s chest she was following orders. There is no indication in the cause of death that her compressions factored into Davis’s death. With regard to negligence could her hesitation be criminal? Yet what was she supposed to do when the hospital said she was not to care for the baby? Is it her legal responsibility to ignore the order of her supervisor not to care for this baby? She has been given contradictory orders – care and not to care.
(To be continued.)