Angry judge delays sentencing in hep C case
September 6, 2013
LAS VEGAS — A Nevada state court judge complained Thursday about chronic delays in getting state presentencing reports, but gave officials seven more weeks to complete an investigation before she sentences a former Las Vegas endoscopy clinic owner and a former employee for their felony convictions in a 2007 community hepatitis C outbreak.
Authorities separately reported the death of a second infected person in the case.
Prosecutor Michael Staudaher said he didn't have details about Michael Washington's death on Aug. 23 in Texas, and didn't immediately know if it would have an effect on the case against former Dr. Dipak Desai and former nurse-anesthetist Ronald Lakeman.
Washington's lawyer, Ed Bernstein, issued a statement Thursday saying his 73-year-old client died in Dallas of complications from the incurable liver disease. The death was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"Our office is greatly saddened by Michael's death as he was an honorable and gentle man who fought for his country, was a caring community volunteer and a wonderful husband and father," the statement said.
Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair said in court that she was frustrated she couldn't sentence Desai and Lakeman as scheduled following their convictions on July 1.
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But she said she couldn't impose sentence without a report from the Nevada Department of Parole and Probation.
"I'm telling you, this is an ongoing issue," the judge said, adding that it was common in other courtrooms as well.
"It's a staffing issue," she said. "It's not unusual for (Parole and Probation) to request additional time."
Desai, 63, a prominent former Las Vegas doctor and state medical board member, was found guilty of all 27 criminal charges against him, including second-degree murder, in a viral outbreak that officials traced to his clinics and called one of the largest ever in the U.S.
Desai was also found guilty of the death of 77-year-old Rodolfo Meana, who became infected at Desai's clinic in July 2007 and died in April 2012.
Desai sat motionless, handcuffed to another jail inmate in the courtroom, and said nothing. His wife, Kusam Desai, sat in the audience with her hands clasped and occasionally dabbed tears from her cheeks.
Lakeman, 66, was spared a murder conviction in Meana's death, but found guilty of 16 charges including insurance fraud, criminal neglect, reckless disregard, obtaining money under false pretenses and theft.
Desai and Lakeman each face what could amount to the rest of his life in prison for their convictions stemming from infections of seven people at Desai's Endoscopy Clinic of Southern Nevada.
Adair denied a request by Lakeman's lawyer, Frederick Santacroce, to release Lakeman to house arrest pending sentencing on the new date, Oct. 24.
Santacroce argued that Lakeman's rights were being violated because he was being held in limbo between jail and prison, and couldn't file an appeal until sentence was imposed.
"I recognize, Mr. Santacroce, the need for a resolution," the judge said. "However, I'm not going to tell (Parole and Probation) they have to move these defendants to the front of the line, ahead of the other defendants who are incarcerated at the Clark County Detention Center awaiting sentencing."
Adair said she didn't have authority to tell the Legislature to allocate more money to hire officers "so they can get these reports prepared in a more timely fashion."
But she said she would require department officials to show up in person Oct. 24 to explain any further delay.
Parole and Probation Capt. David Sonner called the Desai-Lakeman case more complex than others; cited cuts in department staffing in Las Vegas and statewide; and pointed to a Legislative requirement that presentence reports be turned over to the defense seven days before sentencing after Oct. 1. The advance time will lengthen to 14 days after March 1, and 21 days after Oct. 1, 2014.
"The adjustments necessary to meet these new mandates, coupled with the reduction in staff has resulted in a significant impact," Sonner said.
Chief Clark County District Court Judge Jennifer Togliatti characterized the delay in getting presentencing reports as a "logjam," and said she knew it posed hardships on defendants, victims and victims' families.
"They have the same number of PSI report writers, but they don't have as much time," Togliatti said of the Parole and Probation Department. "It's the new normal."
Keith Mathahs, 77, a former Desai clinic nurse anesthetist who treated Washington, is due for sentencing Oct. 31.
Mathahs pleaded guilty last December to five felonies, including criminal neglect of patients resulting in death, insurance fraud and racketeering. He testified against Desai and Lakeman and could get probation or up to six years in state prison.