An appeals court ruled in favor of a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge who dismissed a lawsuit for “malicious prosecution” brought by the caretaker of a Solvang ALS patient who was arrested and charged with murder but found guilty on a less serious charge and subsequently overturned.
The opinion of the Court of Appeal, Second District of Appeal, noting that “the underlying facts are complex”, marked the final chapter involving Wanda Nelson, then 63, the babysitter of Heidi Good, a ALS patient who died on March 25, 2013.
Good suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that left her paralyzed and dependent on a ventilator. Also known as Heidi Good Swacki, her respiratory system became disconnected, causing death from asphyxiation.
In 2015, a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury indicted Nelson and Good’s mother, Marjorie Good, then 93, with murder.
In 2016, a Santa Maria Superior Court jury acquitted Nelson of first and second degree murder, finding her guilty instead of manslaughter. A separate jury found itself deadlocked over the case against Marjorie Good.
However, the appeals court overturned Nelson’s conviction, the first of three appeals considered by the panel over the years.
“This rejected the popular theory that she intentionally unplugged the fan. We concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for manslaughter because there was no substantial evidence of criminal negligence, ”the notice states.
In the second appeal involving Nelson, the panel overturned the trial court’s order declaring her innocent of the facts in Heidi Good’s death.
“We argued:” There are reasonable grounds to believe that [appellant] intentionally killed Heidi by unplugging the fan, ”the ruling said.
But in November 2019, Nelson, represented by Los Angeles attorney Nichelle Jordan, filed a civil lawsuit against the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office and three employees – Detectives Charlie Bosma and Matthew Fenske and lawyer Cynthia Gresser.
In the civil lawsuit, Nelson alleged malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, neglect, false arrest / false imprisonment and a violation of his civil rights under the Bane Act.
Nelson, who had no criminal record, sought general and punitive damages.
“Immediately after Heidi’s death, the plaintiff, the only African American player in this incident, became a scapegoat for the defendants Gresser, Bosma and Fenske who conspired to fabricate and exclude evidence in an attempt to ‘invent “a probable cause which would lead to the arrest of the applicant,” said Nelson’s trial.
But in a request to dismiss the case, the county’s senior deputy attorney, Mary Pat Barry, urged the local judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the three employees have immunity from liability and that Nelson’s other two allegations were late.
“The whole complaint should be dismissed with bias,” Barry wrote.
In the Dec. 14 appeal decision, the panel supported Judge Colleen Sterne’s action to support the opposition filed by the county attorney.
“The judgment of dismissal is upheld,” the notice of appeal by Acting Presiding Judge Kenneth Yegan said.
The notice also awarded the county its costs on the appeal.
However, Nelson’s attorney said they currently have a pending rehearing request with the Court of Appeals and plan to ask the California Supreme Court to reconsider the case.
Nelson has previously filed a federal complaint, but the federal judge issued summary judgment against the civil rights claim and refused to deal with his state claims. This led to the filing in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.