A Pasadena pediatric dentist accused of oversedating dozens of youngsters, leaving one teenage girl with brain damage, was ordered Thursday to stand trial on 49 criminal charges.
Pasadena Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House ruled that there is enough evidence to require Dr. Drueciel Ford to stand trial on 34 felony child abuse counts, 14 misdemeanor counts of unprofessional conduct and one misdemeanor count of obstructing a paramedic. She dismissed 15 charges for lack of evidence or because of a statute of limitations.
The judge told a courtroom filled with Ford supporters that she had "meticulously looked at all the transcripts and all of the evidence," from the 37-day preliminary hearing, which included testimony by dental experts, investigators and dozens of parents.
The evidence showed, she said, that "there was more than just sedation going on." House transferred the case to the Criminals Courts Building in Los Angeles for trial because of its expected length and set an arraignment for Jan. 18.
"Judge House made a very conscientious decision," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Albert H. MacKenzie, one of the prosecutors. "This is a case of criminal negligence. We have anesthesia that was improperly dispensed without monitoring and she continued to do it to others, even after patients went to the hospital."
The charges against Ford stem from allegations that she misused chloral hydrate, a syrup administered orally to sedate youngsters during dental procedures. The case is among several across the country that allege misuse of the sedative on children.
State medical investigators said they believe the case could be used as a precedent in the handling of criminal negligence by health professionals.
Outside the court, Ford, a dentist for 27 years, protested her innocence. "I plan to be completely vindicated," she said. "I've done nothing wrong."
Defense attorney Robert H. McNeill told the judge: "We're disappointed in the court's ruling." Outside the courthouse, he pointed out that the judge had dismissed 15 charges. He said his client was innocent of the others. "We're 25% of the way there," he said.
Edi Faal, another of Ford's attorneys, said, "The medical issues have to be resolved on medical evidence, not on the emotional testimony of parents."
Among the charges dismissed against Ford were dissuading a witness, grand theft and falsifying documentation, as well as some counts of unprofessional conduct and child abuse.
House wrote that Ford's failure to follow usual patient discharge procedures and the improper administration of chloral hydrate were sufficient for the dentist to have to answer child abuse charges. Witnesses testified that the weight of each child was never considered when patients were given the sedative and the children were not properly monitored. Many were released to their parents unable to walk or talk, according to testimony.
Parents testified that Ford and her staff would administer the pink liquid, conduct a dental procedure and then tell parents to bring their car to the back door.
Parents said in court that they were handed a child, still sleeping and often bloody from the procedure. "She was like a rag doll," parent Maria Chan testified.
Prosecutors argued that Ford used chloral hydrate so she could cram a high number of sedated patients into her schedule.
At the heart of the case are allegations that, in March 1999, Ford gave Melissa "Missy" McGrath, now 17, at least a double dose. Two prosecution medical experts testified that the dosage resulted in brain damage after her heart and lungs stopped during the visit to Ford's Green Street clinic. Prosecutors allege that McGrath went into cardiac arrest because Ford gave her a lethal amount of the sedative, which Ford denies.
Ford's lawyers argue that McGrath's heart attack was unrelated to the sedative.
Last year, the deputy district attorney in charge of medical cases decided that there was insufficient evidence to bring felony charges in the McGrath case. But MacKenzie said a subsequent investigation revealed a pattern of abuse justifying the charges.
Last month, MacKenzie filed 13 more charges against Ford, as well another 13 charges against Ford's former dental assistant, Tina Yvette Tate, 34. Tate refused to testify during the preliminary hearing and has left the state, prosecutors say. A warrant has been issued for Tate's arrest.
Ford's dental license has been suspended pending the case's outcome. State Senior Investigator Mike Guerrero said: "We want this case to send a message to the public that no dentist should be operating like Dr. Ford."