When the story broke last March 13, it combined Gothic horror with a sense of modern depravity. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a nurse at the city’s Sunrise Hospital who called herself the Angel of Death had killed at least two patients in the intensive care ward by shutting off their life-support units. More shocking still, the paper reported that the nurse, “like an oddsmaker at a bookmaking establishment,” had taken bets from other staff members as to what time certain patients would die.
Stunned by the charges that made lurid headlines across the country, the hospital administrator immediately suspended seven employees under investigation. Three weeks later a Nevada grand jury indicted registered nurse Jani Adams, 32, for allegedly cutting off oxygen to critically ill Vincent Fraser, 52, thereby causing his death. Then, almost as suddenly as the scandal had surfaced, the case against Adams collapsed. District Judge Michael Wendell quashed the indictment for lack of evidence, and the district attorney’s office chose not to appeal. Reinstated, and apparently vindicated, Adams returned to work early this month.
Though the case is closed, the recriminations are only beginning. “For 11 weeks Jani Adams suffered the agony of the damned,” complains hospital director David Brandsness. “Scurrilous and unfounded allegations were made in an atmosphere of hysteria and sensationalism.” Dr. J. Daniel Wilkes, the hospital pathologist and a trustee, contends that the Review-Journal and its aggressive editor, Don Digilio, rushed flimsy charges into print prematurely, then leaned on the district attorney to obtain “a political indictment protecting the newspaper.” Both Adams and the hospital are considering filing suit against the paper. “Our investigation shows absolutely no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of any Sunrise employee,” says Dr. Wilkes. “Jani Adams is found not only to be innocent but to be a highly conscientious and competent nurse.”
Why then were the bizarre charges brought? Fellow nurses describe Adams as intense and high-strung and say that on duty she is sometimes curt and abrasive. To deal with the stress of attending the dying, she, like many other intensive care nurses, sometimes indulges in gallows humor. At least once, the grand jury was told, she reacted to a patient’s death by remarking offhandedly, “Well, I killed another one tonight.” Most of the nurses didn’t take her seriously. But on the night of patient Fraser’s death, nurse Barbara Farro, who usually worked an earlier shift, became upset that Adams and some other nurses were playing cards and seemed indifferent to Fraser’s failing life signs. Farro later told the police.
Called in for questioning, Adams was stunned. “I’m a Catholic,” she says. “I believe that only God can take a life. We did everything we could to keep Mr. Fraser alive, but he was such a sick man he just died. Then to be charged with murder. I was numb, in a state of shock.” A native of Charlotte, N.C., Adams once taught English at Clemson University before turning to nursing in 1974. She and Bernard Deters, 39, a former hospital technician, share a modest Las Vegas home with two dozen prizewinning Persian cats. Deters was appalled by the grilling Adams was subjected to. “The cops’ opening line was, ‘You can either be a witness or a defendant,’ ” he claims. “They were saying things to Jani like, ‘You can go to the gas chamber.’ ”
Incredibly, the grand jury that indicted Adams saw only small portions of Vincent Fraser’s half-foot-thick medical record. If the jurors had been fully informed, they would have learned that he suffered from a peptic ulcer and chronic cirrhosis of the liver, and that five physicians had agreed his condition was terminal. “To convict for murder, you need a body and a cause of death,” says pathologist Wilkes acidly. “It never occurred to anybody on the DA’s staff that the death certificate listed the cause as sepsis—massive infection that led to shock.” Assistant DA Ed Kane, who handled the case, admits somewhat lamely that “we knew we had serious problems with the indictment,” and says he wishes he had sought expert medical opinion before proceeding. Wilkes couldn’t agree more. “If police, press and prosecutors make decisions like this, what almost happened in Las Vegas would close down every intensive care unit in the country,” he says. “Every day there would be indictments for murder.”