July 22, 2024

DIYClearSkin

Define Beauty Yourself

Ex-Houston dentist convicted in surgery that left girl brain damaged

Ex-Houston dentist convicted in surgery that left girl brain damaged

The jury found Bethaniel Jefferson guilty of recklessly causing serious bodily injury to a child by omission in connection with the January 2016 surgery to stabilize decaying teeth. The procedure left 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall sedated for most of the day as her body seized and blood oxygen levels plunged. A grand jury indicted Jefferson in 2017 of an injury to a child by omission charge.  

The jury is scheduled to return Thursday to impose a sentence for Jefferson.

After the jury’s verdict, Jefferson’s legal team asked the judge to decide the punishment immediately — a request that prosecutors opposed. One of the defense attorneys, Angela Weltin, told the judge that she had mistakenly misinformed her client about who can decide the punishment and when, prompting discussions that led to Weltin’s co-counsel, John Kovach, unleashing an outburst at prosecutor Gilbert Sawtelle in apparent defense of his colleague. 

Weltin tried holding Kovach back in the courtroom.

“You don’t need to raise your voice,” said visiting Judge Terry Flenniken, who is from Brenham. 

CHRONICLE EDITORIAL: A dental tragedy: An anesthesia problem underscores the need for greater oversight of dentists

The dramatic moment followed a week of testimony from the child’s family and medical experts. 

After the first seizure during the procedure, Jefferson administered Halcion, a pill that medical experts said was intended to treat insomnia, and should never have been given to a child, according to court records. Two more seizures followed.

Prosecutors argued that Jefferson had a duty to seek help for Nevaeh sooner. 

“A little girl was hurt because of what this defendant did not do,” Assistant District Attorney Shanice Newton said.

Instead of calling 911 when Nevaeh’s seizures started, around 11:15 a.m., the dentist waited more than five hours, officials said. She called a pastor and a pharmacist before paramedics were dispatched to the Diamond Dental Practice around 4:30 p.m. in the 15000 block of Kuykendahl Road, records show.

The girl’s brain injury prompted criticism of clinics, like Jefferson’s, for treating a large number of pediatric patients whose low-income families qualified for government financial assistance. Critics of the clinics alleged that dentists overused sedative drugs and restraints on children, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation around the time of Nevaeh’s dental appointment. Those complaints stemmed predominantly from competitors of those clinics forced to spend more time on administrative duties rather than with their patients, a dental trade group countered.

The Chronicle, at the time, found that Texas outranked the rest of the nation in pending Medicaid dental fraud investigations. Nevaeh was also a  Medicaid patient.

A dental assistant for Jefferson, who is also her niece, testified that Jefferson restrained Nevaeh during the procedure because she had been vomiting.

Nevaeh, now 11, briefly watched the closing arguments in a wheelchair as the child’s family and a nurse watched over her. 

MORE ON HALL: Houston jury says dental malpractice caused $95M in harm to family of child who suffered brain damage

The judge ordered that she be removed from the court after she made “a periodic noise” he deemed distracting to the proceedings. 

He allowed the child to return for a portion of the closing arguments. An employee with the district attorney’s office wheeled her into the courtroom. Sawtelle detailed Nevaeh’s quality of life.

“This is Nevaeh today,” Sawtelle said. “Nevaeh is blind in one eye. She can’t talk, she can’t walk. She has medical care that interferes with her mother and grandmother’s employment.”

Gilbert G. Sawtelle, an assistant district attorney with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, speaks during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.
Gilbert G. Sawtelle, an assistant district attorney with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, speaks during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.Melissa Phillip/Staff Photographer

The statement prompted the child’s grandmother, Clara Clark, to openly sob in the courtroom. She quickly left but her cries could be heard down the hall. She lamented the impact her granddaughter’s medical needs have had on her life.

The judge briefly considered declaring a mistrial at the defense’s request due to his concerns about the grandmother’s emotional displays.

“It appears to the court that what occurred was staged for trying to unduly influence this jury in a prejudicial way,” said Flenniken, who declined to grant a mistrial.

Weltin encouraged the jurors to seek Jefferson’s acquittal and noted that much of the damage to her life had already been done. Jefferson, who had been practicing in the Houston area since 2007, was prohibited from practicing dentistry and a civil lawsuit related to the incident deemed Jefferson responsible. The jury in that case awarded Nevaeh’s family about $95.5 million in 2022.

Most of the funds could not be paid out because Jefferson’s malpractice insurance did not cover the full amount. 

Clara Clark, center, with her granddaughter, Nevaeh Hall, 11, is comforted after being told to remove the child from the courtroom during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after the then 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.
Clara Clark, center, with her granddaughter, Nevaeh Hall, 11, is comforted after being told to remove the child from the courtroom during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after the then 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.Melissa Phillip/Staff Photographer

A state dental board had reprimanded Jefferson twice before Nevaeh’s surgery. 

The trial brought several medical experts, some of whom testified during the civil trial, to the witness stand. 

Dr. Roger Byrne testified that Nevaeh’s medical records show that her oxygen was below the appropriate threshold for about three hours. She was suffering from hypoxia — a lack of sufficient oxygen in the body — as a result, he said. Giving the child a dose of Halcion during the procedure made it worse, Byrne said.

“Administering the Halcion drug was a mistake,” he testified. 

He said that Jefferson should have called for help.

FROM 2016: Mom says dental restraint device led to child’s brain damage

A medical expert for the defense, Dr. William Spangler, testified that Nevaeh had prior medical conditions, such as hypoglycemia, that contributed to the seizures during the procedure.

Dr. Amy Arrington, who examined Nevaeh at the Texas Children’s Hospital intensive care unit after the procedure, reported Jefferson to the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners, believing that the dentist “should have called 911” as soon as the girl’s seizures started, according to court records. 

“It’s not something I took lightly,” Arrington testified. “I felt (Jefferson’s treatment) was below the standards of medical care.”

Angela Weltin, defense attorney, speaks during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.
Angela Weltin, defense attorney, speaks during closing arguments in the trial of Bethaniel Jefferson Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Houston. Jefferson, who was a dentist lost her license after 4-year-old Nevaeh Hall suffered a serious brain injury during a dental procedure. Bethaniel Jefferson was charged in 2017 with injury to a child in connection with the 2016 incident.Melissa Phillip/Staff Photographer