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Nurse accused of ignoring suspicious deaths gets $10,000 to help defense
By Charles Keeshan | Daily Herald Staff

Penny Whitlock

 

Marty Himebaugh

 

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Published: 2/25/2010 11:49 AM

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The defense for a registered nurse accused of turning a blind eye to several suspicious deaths at a McHenry County nursing home received a huge boost Thursday when a judge agreed to give her $10,000 in county money to hire expert witnesses.

Judge Joseph Condon ruled that Penny Whitlock is indigent and therefore eligible to receive financial assistance to retain witnesses on issues "crucial" to her defense.

"The judge made the right decision," Whitlock attorney Nils Von Keudell said later. "Fair is fair. The state has unlimited resources to prosecute; Penny doesn't (to defend herself)."

Condon made the ruling after hearing Whitlock testify, sometimes through tears, that she already is $107,000 in debt and has no more money to defend herself.

Whitlock, 60, of Woodstock, faces five counts of criminal neglect of a long-term care facility resident and two counts of obstructing justice stemming from a 15-month investigation into a rash of unusual deaths in 2006 at the Woodstock Residence nursing home.

Authorities allege Whitlock, the home's former director of nursing, endangered patients by failing to report staff members' allegations that nurse Marty Himebaugh was giving dangerous doses or morphine or other drugs to patients.

Whitlock, the charges allege, responded to the complaints by saying Himebaugh could "continue to play 'Angel of Death' in the facility."

Her defense plans to use about $5,000 to retain Dr. Laura Labay, a Pennsylvania-based toxicologist who authorities initially turned to while investigating the deaths. Labay, according to the defense, told investigators one of the suspicious patient deaths could not be attributed to morphine intoxication.

That led authorities to seek out and retain another expert who is expected to testify that the death was morphine-related.

Von Keudell said he plans to use the rest of the county money to consult with and retain nursing experts to possibly testify in defense of Whitlock's actions.

County prosecutors did not object to the request, but did say they will ask that Whitlock be ordered to reimburse the county for expert fees if she is convicted. No trial date in the case has been scheduled, but Von Keudell said he believes the case could be before a jury by the end of the year.

Himebaugh, 58, of Lake in the Hills, also is awaiting trials on multiple felony charges that stop short of claiming she killed patients, but allege she gave dangerous dosages of drugs to patients who later died.

Both women would face a maximum three years in prison if convicted.