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Police won't be charged in death at hospital

Prosecutors say L.A. County officers did more than the King-Harbor staff to help woman get medical care.

July 17, 2007|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County prosecutors will not file criminal charges against the police officers involved in the now-infamous case of a woman who died after writhing untreated on the floor of Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, saying the officers tried harder than the hospital's own nurses to get her care.

The county police officers ultimately arrested Edith Isabel Rodriguez, 43, on an outstanding warrant, deciding she would get better medical treatment in jail than at the hospital, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Schwartz wrote in a letter Monday to county Sheriff's Capt. James Curtis.

The Sheriff's Department homicide bureau had been investigating the conduct of the county officers because Rodriguez's May 9 death occurred while in their custody.

"The evidence examined in the investigation shows the officers did not act recklessly or in a grossly negligent manner in assisting or arresting Edith Rodriguez," Schwartz wrote. "On the contrary, the officers acted in a compassionate and professional manner by summoning medical assistance for Rodriguez....

"Faced with the nursing staff's refusal to render medical care to Rodriguez, the officers determined that Rodriguez would receive necessary medical care at the Century Regional Detention Center."

No decision has been made about possible charges against hospital staffers involved in the case, including the triage nurse who rebuffed officers' pleas to help Rodriguez.

A King-Harbor security videotape showed Rodriguez writhing for 45 minutes on the floor of the emergency room lobby, and recordings of two 911 calls indicated that witnesses had unsuccessfully pleaded with sheriff's dispatchers for help.

Rodriguez, a California native and mother of three, had sought care at King-Harbor in each of the three days before her death. She had complained of stomach pain and was diagnosed with gallstones. She was given pain medication and released each time.

After her release May 8, Rodriguez did not leave the hospital grounds but instead went to benches in front of the facility. At 12:30 a.m. May 9, two county police officers received a radio call of a "female down yelling for help" at the hospital's front entrance. There they found Rodriguez crying out, appearing to be in great pain.

Rodriguez was taken into the emergency room, where a triage nurse refused to help, according to a police report. Officers wrote that the nurse "did not show any concern" for the woman's wellbeing.

The letter from Schwartz said a county police sergeant and a private security guard saw Rodriguez spit up a dark-colored substance, which her boyfriend said was blood, onto the waiting-room floor. A janitor mopped around her, the videotape shows.

After trying to get care for Rodriguez, officers ran her name through a computer and determined that she had an outstanding warrant for a parole violation. As they took her into custody and wheeled her to a waiting patrol car, she became unresponsive, according to Schwartz's letter. They brought her back inside and she died in the emergency room.

The county coroner ruled her death accidental, the result of a perforated bowel.

Scott Frayer, president of the Los Angeles County Police Officers Assn., said, "I'm just pleased that the system was allowed to work and that our officers' names were cleared and it was proven that they were trying to take steps to get her some medical care.

"It was an unusual step that they had to take, but again, they were out of options."

Franklin Casco Jr., the attorney representing Rodriguez's three grown children, said he did not believe county police did enough.

"Proper police protocol is to obtain medical care first and then make an arrest," Casco said. "The mistake that they made was that they should have had her checked out before they took her. They made a judgment call -- and their judgment call was wrong."

County health officials continue to cope with the aftermath of the Rodriguez case, which helped trigger the state's recent effort to pull the license of King-Harbor, formerly known as King/Drew.

King-Harbor is awaiting a make-or-break federal review -- expected any day -- that will determine if it keeps its federal certification, and with it critical funding. If it passes, the threat of closure will probably be lifted. If it fails, county supervisors have said, closure is inevitable.

In a memo released Friday, county officials presented the most detailed account to date of how they are handling the prospect of closure. They said they have worked with 911 responders to map out new ambulance routes and have met with seven nearby private hospitals to discuss the potential effect on them of a King-Harbor closure.

Other steps would be taken to add beds at public hospitals and find a private entity to run King-Harbor.

Health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof is expected to discuss the options with the county Board of Supervisors at today's meeting.

charles.ornstein@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

For previous Times articles on King-Harbor, visit latimes.com/kingharbor.

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