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Judge upholds acquittal in 9 hurricane nursing home deaths

In the foreground of this overhead photo, two police officers stand next to an older woman whose back is turned to the camera. In the background, people in yellow safety vests stand under a pair of blue canopies. A building is at the back of the picture and there are trees on three sides.
Marta Lavandier
Police officers talk to an employee at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla., in 2017. A number of patients died after the air conditioning stopped following Hurricane Irma, authorities said.

Circuit Judge John J. Murphy III agreed with the defense that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jorge Carballo had acted with reckless disregard for human life or had demonstrated conscious indifference to his patients’ safety.

A Florida judge rejected a prosecutor's impassioned plea Monday, saying he would not reconsider his acquittal of a nursing home administrator in the overheating deaths of nine patients after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility's air conditioning in 2017.

Circuit Judge John J. Murphy III listened impassively as prosecutor Charles Morton made his case Monday morning for reconsideration. But after about an hour of deliberation Murphy upheld his Friday decision to acquit Jorge Carballo of manslaughter — even before the three-week trial reached the jury.

Murphy agreed with Carballo's attorneys that it would be double jeopardy to reverse his decision and let the trial continue. In his earlier ruling, he agreed with the defense that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their client had acted with reckless disregard for human life or had demonstrated conscious indifference to his patients’ safety, two necessary components for conviction.

The judge found “undisputed evidence” that Carballo’s employees had tried to provide care to the patients and, in Monday's ruling, said nothing presented in court would have changed his mind even if he could have.

“The state has not presented sufficient evidence that the Defendant acted with culpable negligence,” Murphy wrote Monday. Prosecutors cannot appeal the ruling, which is final.

Carballo’s attorneys did not immediately return a phone call seeking reaction to the ruling.

Carballo, 65, was operating the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in September 2017 when Irma knocked out power to the 150-bed facility’s air conditioning. Temperatures rose inside the building over two-plus days before patients started dying on the second floor. That's where improperly installed temporary air conditioners had actually increased the already sweltering temperatures.

In Hollywood, four patients were found dead initially after emergency workers received a call about a person with a heart attack, and more died later at the hospital, authorities said. Altogether, more than 100 patients there were found to
be suffering in the heat and were evacuated, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs.

Carballo and three of his employees were originally charged with 12 deaths, but prosecutors dropped charges against the others and reduced the counts against Carballo. He had faced up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Irma had disconnected an electrical line that powered only the facility's air conditioner. The facility's other power remained. The power and air conditioning were also intact at a large regional hospital across the street, where prosecutors and families have argued the patients should have been evacuated.

Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor issued a statement Monday saying that he and his team “respectfully accept the judge’s decision, though we strongly disagree with it.”

“I think we can all agree that all of us would want our family members to have been treated with much more care and concern,” he said.

Glendale Owens, whose 83-year-old father, Bobby Owens, died at the facility, was frustrated by the judge's ruling. She believes the patients should have been evacuated to the hospital as soon as the nursing home's temperatures started rising.

“Nine patients died. Nine elderly, helpless patients who were confined to bed. Who were (paying) professional people to take care of them,” Owens, a retired nurse, said after Monday’s hearing. “Now no one is going to be responsible for their deaths. They died in vain.”

During Monday’s hearing, Morton tried to persuade Murphy that he had failed to consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, as is required by law before a judge can issue a unilateral acquittal.

Morton said the evidence presented had shown that Carballo had warnings from his medical staff that the second-floor patients were overheating well before they began dying, but that he was more concerned about money than their health.

He called Carballo's behavior “criminally despicable and negligent." He said that when the defense says there has never been a prosecution before in a case like this, that's "because no one has ever been so criminally neglectful to cause the deaths of multiple people.”

He said Carballo didn't need a medical degree to understand that soaring temperatures could endanger elderly and frail patients.

“You don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing,” Morton said, paraphrasing Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Outside court but before the judge's ruling, Carballo attorney James Cobb blasted Morton's characterization of his client.

“What is despicable in this case is that the state continues to pursue Mr. Carballo. He is presumed innocent. He has been innocent all along and now that we have a ruling from the court adjudicating him innocent, to come into this courtroom and say he is ‘despicable’ is out of bounds and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” Cobb said.

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