January 19, 2008 in Nation/World

911 operator convicted, dismissed call as a prank

Ben Schmitt Detroit Free Press
 

DETROIT – In a first- of-its-kind criminal case, a Detroit jury convicted a 911 operator Friday of ignoring an emergency call from a 5-year-old boy seeking help after his mother collapsed.

Sharon Nichols, 45, wept as she left court and buried her head in the shoulder of a fellow 911 operator, who faced a criminal charge in the same case that a judge dismissed.

A jury of five women and one man found Nichols guilty of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor, after a five-day trial and three hours of deliberations in 36th District Court.

Sherrill Turner was dead by the time police arrived Feb. 20, 2006. The case marked the first time nationally that a 911 operator had been charged with a crime in mishandling a phone call, attorneys and a top 911 official said Friday.

“I hope that it makes every 911 operator in the city and across the country think real hard before dismissing a call as a prank,” Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lora Weingarden said outside the courtroom. “I’m thrilled with the verdict.”

The caller, Robert Turner, now 7, said he also was thrilled. Reached by phone Friday night, he said he would forgive Nichols if she apologized to him.

“She was mean to me. She didn’t send help,” he said. “I would forgive her if she wanted to talk.”

He said he thinks about his mother every day.

“She was the best,” Robert said. “I really miss her.”

Robert is now living with a sister.

Rick Jones, operation issues director of the non-profit National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., said the case shows the need for more specialized training.

“What it does is points out all 911 operators in the country should have in place training for call takers for dealing with younger children,” he said.

The case stems from an emergency call Robert made after his mother fell unconscious in her Detroit home. Nichols dismissed the call as a prank. Authorities later determined that Sherrill Turner, 46, died of complications from an enlarged heart.

Nichols maintained her composure as jurors read the verdict.

But she broke down outside the court, hugging the other operator, Terri Sutton, 48, who was found not guilty by a judge on the same charge earlier in the week. Sutton took a call from Robert after Nichols did.

Nichols declined to comment. Her attorney, Cornelius Pitts, said the verdict would be appealed.

Nichols faces probation or up to a year in jail when she is sentenced March 11.

Nichols testified Thursday that she could not hear Robert on the other end of the line.

The boy called 911 at 5:59 p.m. and told Nichols, “My mom has passed out.”

On the 911 audiotape played in court, Nichols is heard threatening the boy, “I’m going to send the police to your house and find out what’s going on with you.”

Asked why she did not request a police car, Nichols said she believed the call to be a prank and was trying to get Robert to admit it.

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