RAPIDES PARISH, La. (KALB) - Frederick Harris, an Alexandria VA Medical Center employee who was charged with negligent homicide for the 2013 death of a patient, changed his plea last minute as opening arguments were set to start in his bench trial in Rapides Parish.
Harris was originally charged with manslaughter for the death of Charles Johnson, 70, but that charge was dismissed and replaced with a negligent homicide charge. If convicted, Harris could have been sentenced to up to five years behind bars or a $5,000 fine or both.
Harris was a nursing assistant at the VA. According to the DA's Office, Johnson suffered a head injury while he was a patient at the facility. He was treated at Rapides Regional Medical Center and then transferred to a nursing home in Grant Parish where he later died.
An autopsy showed that the cause of Johnson's death was blunt force trauma to the head.
As opening arguments were set to begin, Harris changed his plea to "no contest." According to the Rapides Parish District Attorney's Office, evidence was about to show that Harris and Johnson got into a scuffle when Johnson approached a nurse asking for medication. Harris believed that Johnson was acting aggressively.
"He put his arms around Mr. Johnson. They struggled and Mr. Johnson was thrown against the wall or the floor and sustained a serious head injury. He was released and admitted to a nursing home and later died as a result of the injury. Frederick Harris actions were not intentional, but criminally negligent," said Brian Mosley, who prosecuted the case.
The state had two patient witnesses who were set to testify that Johnson was not acting aggressively. When asked by Judge Harry Randow if he understood what the witnesses would say, Harris, said, "I understand it, but I don't agree with it."
During his victim impact statement, Donald Burke, Johnson's brother-in-law who agreed to the offering of the plea deal, had only this to say, "It has been drug out so long. That's my only problem with it."
Judge Randow suspended a jail sentence for Harris and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine and court costs. He will also be placed on probation for one year.
The light sentence is due to a provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure called Article 893. It allows a person who has never been convicted of a crime before to enter a plea of guilty, and as a result, the imposition of a sentence is suspended and at the conclusion of their probationary period, they can apply to have their record expunged. Negligent homicide is also not considered a crime of violence under Louisiana law.
"After we reviewed the case, based upon the facts of the case, we decided that was something that would serve the ends of justice in this matter," said Mosley.
Some of the facts that would have been revealed include that the nurse who was involved by witnessing the incident passed away about two years ago. We also learned that after a CAT scan was taken of Johnson's head, the wrong person's results were read and that delayed treatment.
"Mr. Harris is a good man," said his attorney, George Higgins. "The situation was tragic. I do think he was overcharged initially. The negligent homicide charge was a much clearer and fairer picture. We are satisfied with the way this ended. It allows him a chance at another job. He'll be able to clear his record completely in one year."