Judge Acquits Rural Doctor of Murder of Infant Patient
The unusual prosecution of a Northern California doctor charged with the murder of an infant patient ended abruptly Friday when a judge said authorities failed to show that the physician had acted criminally.
The case against Dr. Wolfgang Schug has outraged the medical community, which contends that doctors should not be prosecuted for medical mistakes.
But prosecutors and the family of 11-month-old Cody Burrows say Schug’s care for the baby was so reckless that the doctor deserved to go to prison.
Cody’s mother burst into tears Friday and ran from the Lakeport courtroom when the judge acquitted Schug of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the child’s 1996 death.
“I am angry, I am hurt,” said Betty Thomas, the boy’s grandmother. “It is just frustrating.”
Schug, who worked in the emergency room of a tiny, rural hospital 110 miles north of San Francisco, expressed relief at his acquittal but also bitterness over the legal ordeal that tarnished his reputation.
Prosecutors took the unusual step of charging Schug with murder, alleging that the doctor failed to recognize Cody’s lethal condition and, after realizing his errors, sent the child off by private car to another hospital in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
The boy was brain-dead upon arrival at the second hospital after his parents raced 55 miles over twisting mountain roads.
Schug’s case had alarmed state and national medical associations, which oppose the prosecution of doctors for medical judgments. A trustee of the California Medical Assn. said Friday that Schug’s acquittal made him “happy for all physicians.”
Schug, who has been on unpaid leave from Redbud Community Hospital in Clearlake since his arrest in August, said he hopes to return to the job he has held for about 10 years.
The doctor said he tried diligently to help the child. “You go to work and you do the best you can,” said Schug, 45. “If something goes wrong you should not be subject to 15 years in prison. . . . This child was killed by an illness which I was unable to stop.”
Lake County Superior Court Judge Robert Crone acquitted Schug on a defense motion and dismissed the jury after ruling that the prosecution had not presented substantial evidence of criminal conduct to support the charges.
Prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office appeared stunned by the judge’s decision. They had rested their case Thursday after more than two weeks of presenting evidence.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Vernon Pierson said doctors, like other California residents, should bear responsibility for criminal conduct.
“There’s nothing that I’m aware of that says that an MD degree at the end of your name says that somehow, you’re above the law,” Pierson said.
Several spectators in the courtroom had tears in their eyes when Crone made his ruling. Schug’s family cried and hugged him, as Cody’s mother, Rhoda Thomas, ran from the courtroom sobbing.
“I just can’t believe this,” said Betty Thomas, Rhoda’s mother. “I had faith in the jury, and I think they would have come with a good verdict had they had the chance to continue this trial.”
Rhoda Thomas had brought Cody to Redbud’s emergency room three times over 48 hours on a weekend in February 1996 because the child had been vomiting and had diarrhea. Schug saw Cody during the first and third visits.
After keeping the boy in the emergency room for more than eight hours on the third visit, Schug told Cody’s parents to drive the baby to a hospital in Santa Rosa.
The prosecution contended that Schug had acted recklessly with wanton disregard for the baby’s life by transferring Cody without first stabilizing him or calling an ambulance. A medical expert for the prosecution testified that Cody had been severely dehydrated and was too ill to be moved.
Authorities arrested Schug in Redbud’s emergency room in August. He faced 15 years to life if convicted. He said he has borrowed heavily to pay for his defense, which has cost about $140,000.
His lawyers contended that Cody had retrovirus, a type of intestinal infection, and was only mildly dehydrated when Schug decided to transfer him by private car.
The defense had interrupted the prosecution’s presentation to present a medical expert who was unavailable to testify at a later date. The expert, a nationally known expert in pediatric infectious disease, testified that Schug had acted appropriately in caring for Cody.
While Cody was in the emergency room, Schug had ordered a chest X-ray, put the baby in a tepid bath to bring down his temperature of 105.5 degrees and tried unsuccessfully to find a vein for an intravenous line.
“He certainly didn’t look critical or lethargic in the medical sense,” Schug said in a previous interview, “or like he was going downhill so rapidly that he didn’t even have an hour or two.”
Schug said he sent Cody by car to Santa Rosa because he thought it would be faster than by ambulance. During the months before Cody’s death, ambulances for out-of-county transport had been delayed an average of 75 minutes, he said.
But during trial, a paramedic called by the prosecution testified that an ambulance was available that evening. She said the ambulance could have been at the hospital within five minutes.
A San Francisco coroner testified that Cody died of sepsis, a massive infection, but conceded that it was difficult to determine precisely what ailed him because of the massive amount of fluids and antibiotics the baby had been given during a resuscitation effort.
Cody was the only child of Rhoda Thomas and David Burrows. They have filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Redbud Hospital, Schug and a pediatrician at the Santa Rosa hospital who conferred with Schug by telephone. The state medical board is also attempting to revoke Schug’s medical license.
During the trial, nurses from Redbud hospital testified reluctantly that Cody had appeared lethargic and had not responded to being poked in the groin by needles.
Niles White, one of the Redbud nurses who cared for Cody, said he knew Schug “as my colleague, as my boss.”
“I don’t believe Dr. Schug is guilty of murder,” White testified. “That’s just inconceivable he can be accused of that.”
Michael Sexton, a certified emergency room physician and a trustee of the California Medical Assn., said he was pleased by the judge’s decision.
Medical associations complain that in recent years prosecutors have begun charging physicians criminally for medical errors.
“As more of these cases come to court and a verdict is found of acquittal, I think that will send a message to overly ambitious prosecutors that this is not a proper approach,” said Sexton, whose association represents 35,000 California doctors.
Cody’s family has long complained that Schug never apologized or expressed his sorrow at the baby’s death. But in a courtroom hallway last week, Betty Thomas said, Schug approached the grandmother.
“I would give 15 years of my life if it would bring back your baby,” she said he told her. Thomas, remembering the encounter, said she could not reply. She only cried.