No-contest plea, probation sentence in 2013 VA patient death
ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — A man who worked as a nursing assistant at a veterans’ hospital in Louisiana pleaded no contest Wednesday to a negligent homicide charge in a patient’s 2013 death.
Fredrick Kevin Harris, 56, entered the plea prior to the start of his scheduled trial Wednesday in state district court in Alexandria. Rapides Parish Assistant District Attorney Brian Mosley confirmed that Harris was sentenced to a year of probation and fined $1,000.
The plea means Harris, while not admitting guilt, stands convicted in the death of 70-year-old Charles Johnson. Defense attorney George Higgins said that after the probation is served, Harris will be able to apply to have his record expunged.
Prosecutors said Johnson died after an altercation with Harris in March 2013 at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Pineville.
Hospital officials first called it an accident. But, an autopsy showing blunt force trauma led to a criminal investigation. Harris was arrested in December 2013.
The case drew national attention as scandal was later erupting over chronic delays for veterans seeking care.
The plea resolved a case that dragged on for more than four years and which, Mosley said, became more challenging to prosecute for several reasons. Those included the death of a witness and the fact that proper treatment for Johnson was delayed after a radiology report was misread, Mosley said.
“It has been drug out so long. That’s my only problem with it,” the victim’s brother-in-law, Donald Burke, said on behalf of the family during a victim impact statement, according to a report by KALB-TV.
Johnson’s sister, Elizabeth Burke, filed a wrongful death claim against the VA in 2014, seeking $1 million. The VA agreed to pay $215,000 to resolve her claim.
The VA’s critics, including members of Congress, were critical of the VA for leaving Harris on the payroll after Johnson’s death: The VA acknowledged in 2016 that Harris was placed on paid leave after his arrest and that he was later allowed to return to work in a “non-patient” area.
Harris eventually was put on unpaid, indefinite suspension as the criminal case developed.
“We are satisfied the way this ended,” Higgins said. “It allows him a chance at another job. He’ll be able to clear his record completely in one year.”