Hospital officials deemed it an accident when Air Force Veteran Charles Lee Johnson, 70, died at the hands of Fredrick Kevin Harris, 54, three years ago. Johnson was a psychiatric patient at the Department of Veteran Affairs medical center in central Louisiana.
But Harris has now been charged with manslaughter by local prosecutors, according to CBS News. VA officials had cleared Harris to return to work within days of the death of Johnson at a nursing home in May 1, 2013, after putting him on paid leave prior to his arrest. But a coroner, unconvinced about the nature of Johnson’s death, laid the groundwork for an extensive criminal investigation that saw Harris arrested in December, 2013.
An autopsy revealed that Johnson had died from blunt force trauma to the head, but Johnson’s family had always doubted the nature of his death because his injuries were not synonymous with an accidental fall that authorities claimed killed him.
“They tried to cover it all up,” brother-in-law of the deceased, Donald Burke, said.
Donald Burke said his brother-in-law was drifting in and out of consciousness and could not recall what happened. But Gregory Jones, attorney for the family, said his sister, Elizabeth, noticed some bruises and marks on the back and on the side of Johnson’s neck.
Harris’ attorney, George Higgins III, said his client had no intention of killing Johnson and was well-trained in techniques to restrain uncontrollable patients.
“There was absolutely no intent, in any manner, shape or form, to harm this patient, the only thing he was doing was trying to protect other patients and staff members,” Higgins said.
“I’ve never known him to get into a fight of any kind; he was just a common, ordinary old man,” Donald Burke said.
Johnson’s sister, Elizabeth Burke, filed a claim for wrongful death against the VA for $1 million in 2014, and later the VA affairs agreed to pay her $215,000. The Burkes said they were told over the phone that Johnson had been seriously injured in a fall and transferred to another hospital in Alexandria.
The Veteran Affairs Office of the Inspector General opened a criminal investigation after the death of Johnson and an inquiry led by Thomas Bennett, a lead investigator, which yielded some chilling findings. Bennett said witnesses claimed that Harris “slammed the patient’s head into the wall in the hospital’s acute mental health unit.”
Higgins, the attorney for the defendant, sought clarification by asking if Harris physically slammed Johnson’s head into a wall or threw him against a wall. Bennett said witnesses had given different variations of the story. But from what he deduced, Harris had grabbed Johnson’s body and thrown him into the wall with his head taking a full brunt, not by grabbing his head but by grabbing his body.
The Congressional and Legislative Affairs of the VA’s office provided a different account of the altercation. The office said Johnson had become aggressive and agitated, charging at Harris before he fell fatally as the nursing assistant tried to “redirect” him during the confrontation.
The Burkes said a prison sentence would not bring the family any closure. But that Fredrick Kevin Harris needs to be removed from caring for other patients because they do not want to see anyone else hurt like Johnson. Johnson died a year before a national scandal about delayed medical care for veterans rose to the fore.
In 2008, Harris was arrested for assault after he allegedly struck a close relative in the face during an argument at his home in Alexandria. He was arrested but avoided being charged.
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