Developmentally disabled Kathleen Smith and care provider Michael Noland had a special relationship at the state-run Lakeland Village Nursing Facility in Medical Lake.
Smith visited Noland’s home to share dinner with he and his wife, assistant public defender Steve Heintz said.
“He took her to get ice cream. He would sing Ms. Smith to sleep every night. He adored her and she adored him,” Heintz said. “This was more than a client. This was a friend.”
Yet Noland, 49, is now facing trial before Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt for second-degree manslaughter after Noland left Smith’s side on March 21, 2006, while she was having a bath.
The autopsy showed that the 52-year-old had a seizure and drowned while Noland, an attendant at Lakeland Village, was talking to another employee. After reviewing the case, Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Patrick Johnson charged Noland with second-degree manslaughter.
Johnson is also seeking aggravating factors — because Smith was extremely vulnerable and placed in Noland’s trust — which could result in a sentence of up to 10 years in prison if the jury convicts Noland, who has no previous criminal history.
But Heintz blamed state officials. The facility is operated by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and federal guidelines call for having one staff member for every three patients.
On the day in question, Noland started his shift caring for four patients. Later the same day, the staffing level had dropped to one staff member for six patients, Heintz said.
“Management knew the understaffing caused safety issues … and they didn’t do anything about it,” Heintz said. “It was an impossible situation. A great tragedy occurred … but Mr. Noland did not commit a crime.”
The first witness was Registered Nurse Jennifer Olmstead. She said Smith was one of the higher-functioning clients at Lakeland Village, which provides rehabilitation with the goal that its patients become independent enough to care for themselves.
“She was a very nice woman, very sociable,” Olmstead said of Smith. “She helped with others. She was a very caring individual.”
Olmstead was getting medications for another patient when she discovered Smith in the bathtub.
According to court records, Noland had helped Smith prepare for the bath and then left her alone there despite a policy requiring employees to visually supervise Smith within an arm’s length distance while she bathed.
“At one point, Kathleen Smith told Noland she was ready to get out of the bath and Noland advised her to get out if finished,” Medical Lake police Officer Ian Hays wrote in court records. “Noland did not assist Smith in exiting the bathtub.”
Olmstead said she called for assistance after discovering Smith and Noland responded in seconds. They initiated CPR but were unable to resuscitate Smith.
Heintz said Smith previously had no trouble getting out of the bathtub on her own and that Noland was called away to deal with another client and a personnel matter.
“Mr. Noland was dealing with twice the number of people that he should have been,” Heintz said. “Mr. Noland is an innocent man who has been wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit.”
Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509)459-5495 or at firstname.lastname@example.org