After a hung jury, attorney general’s office abandons elder abuse case against Placerville nurse

When 77-year-old Johnnie Esco died in 2008 after a short stay at a Placerville nursing home, her husband of 60 years wanted someone held responsible – civilly and criminally.

Don Esco of Cameron Park settled his civil lawsuit against the El Dorado Care Center and its owner in 2010 for $2.9 million. The criminal matter ended quite differently this week, with California’s attorney general declining to seek a new trial against the facility’s former head nurse following a mistrial.

More than five years after the elderly woman’s death, an El Dorado County jury failed to reach a verdict in the case against Donna Darlene Palmer, charged with felony elder abuse.

Palmer, the former director of nursing at the facility, was one of two nurses charged criminally last year by the California attorney general’s office. At the time, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’ office had announced plans to intensify efforts statewide to bring criminal cases against nursing home administrators and employees whose failings harm vulnerable patients.

In Palmer’s case, the jury tipped decidedly in the nurse’s favor, with nine jurors voting to acquit, according to attorneys for both sides.

This week, Deputy Attorney General Steven Muni told the judge his office would not seek to retry the case.

“None of the government’s theories fit the facts,” said Palmer’s attorney, Patrick K. Hanly, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “There just was no case.”

Judy Eyolfson, Esco’s daughter and a retired registered nurse, said the family was deeply disappointed that the jury deadlocked. Her father, Don, died in October 2012 at age 82 after dogging the case for four and a half years, badgering local and state officials to investigate his wife’s death and pursue criminal charges.

“My dad would have had a heart attack or stroke over this,” said Eyolfson, of Rancho Cordova, who testified at the trial.

The prosecution contended that Palmer and a licensed vocational nurse, Rebecca Smith, had failed to perform their duties and to adequately supervise staff in caring for Esco.

The 77-year-old woman, who suffered from dementia and other chronic illnesses, was recuperating at the El Dorado Care Center in February 2008 following a bout with pneumonia. After a 13-day stay at the nursing home, she died at nearby Marshall Medical Center on March 7, 2008, when her condition suddenly worsened and she was found to have a severe fecal impaction due to chronic constipation.

The Sacramento Bee featured her story in September 2011 in a series exploring falsification of nursing home records, which allegedly occurred in Esco’s case and others.

Palmer and Smith were arrested in March 2012. Smith later pleaded no contest to felony elder abuse and agreed to help prosecutors in their criminal case against Palmer, her former supervisor.

But Hanly said that Smith actually turned out to be a “great witness” for the defense.

In her testimony in El Dorado Superior Court, Smith acknowledged that she was intimidated by Palmer, who she said required nurses to do a good job or face corrective action. Under questioning from Hanly, Smith agreed that Palmer was fair and “not mean” to staff.

“She (Palmer) was a demanding, exacting supervisor who demanded that patients be cared for properly and treated well by the nurses,” Hanly told The Bee.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Before his death last year, Don Esco had pressed for government action in the case, becoming active with a Sacramento-based advocacy group.

Carole Herman, president of Foundation Aiding the Elderly, befriended Esco and accompanied him to several of the criminal proceedings.

“I’m extremely disappointed in the attorney general for not taking this further,” said Herman. “This was definitely an elder abuse case. ... If these people are never held accountable, then this will continue forever.”

The case was closely watched by the nursing home industry and advocates for the elderly, as criminal prosecutions of nursing home workers remain rare in California. Allegations of abuse or neglect are more frequently handled in the civil courts.

The Placerville nursing home has since been sold and renamed.

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