On February 20, 2006, Robert Turner was only five years old when his mother collapsed in their Detroit, Michigan home. Emergency operators Sharon Nichols and Terri Sutton threatened to call the police if Turner did not allow them to speak with his mother, who was already dying and unable to speak.
“Okay, then she’s going to speak with the police, right?” Sutton declared. “She will speak with the police because I’m sending them there. No matter what, you shouldn’t be playing with your phone. Put her on the phone immediately, or I’ll send the police to your door and you’ll be in trouble.”
Sherrill Turner, 46, had already died of a heart attack when they arrived in lieu of an ambulance, while Robert Turner could only watch in horror. Her family filed a $1 million wrongful de*ath lawsuit, and the incident led to the unprecedented conviction of a 911 operator for willful neglect of duty, as well as calls to overhaul the current emergency dispatch system.
Robert Turner’s Tragic 911 Calls
Monday was a typical day for the Turner family on the fateful day in question. Robert Turner witnessed his mother lose consciousness in her bedroom shortly before 6:00 p.m., bringing about their tragic loss. The young boy dialed 911 in a mature manner.
Robert Turner said, “My mother has passed away.”
At 5:59 p.m., Sharon Nichols, an emergency services operator, received the first call. The 5-year-old misunderstood the 43-year-old’s question about his father’s whereabouts. Turner replied, “She’s not going to talk,” when asked if she could speak to his father. Nichols astonishingly reprimanded Turner before ending the call.
Nichols said, “All right, I’ll send the police to your house to investigate what’s going on.”
Police officers and emergency medical personnel did not respond to the scene.
Robert Turner spent the next three hours observing the deterioration of his unconscious mother. By the time Turner dialed 911 again at 9:02 p.m., she had tragically passed away due to complications from a dilated heart. Terri Sutton, the operator, not only reprimanded him, but also dispatched an officer to the apartment at 1950 Spruce Street to reprimand the boy.
“It was taking too long,” Turner stated as the reason for his second 911 call. “And she said the same thing.”
At 9:40 p.m., when the police finally arrived, Sherrill Turner was pronounced de*ad, and her son was placed in the care of his relatives Delaina and Tyrone Patterson. Geoffrey Fieger, a family lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Sharon Nichols, Terri Sutton, and the city of Detroit itself.
“Perhaps we wouldn’t be here if someone had followed up and sent a police officer to reprimand Robert, rather than to assist his mother, as they did on the subsequent call,” said Fieger. However, nobody came at all.
“All that occurred was that Robert was threatened and intimidated from doing what his mother had taught him to do in an emergency situation, which was to make an emergency call.”
The Aftermath Of Sherrill Turner’s De-ath
When Geoffrey Fieger accepted Robert Turner’s case, he had already established himself as the attorney who defended Jack Kevorkian, the infamous pathologist on trial for assisting the suicides of terminal patients. He argued that negligence caused the de*ath of Sherrill Turner.
Fieger stated, “We are certain that his mother would have survived had help arrived within those crucial minutes.” “We will also demonstrate that this is not an isolated incident. This occurs far more frequently than people believe. And without this tape, no one would believe Robert.”
“We teach our children to dial 911 and request assistance in the event of an emergency.” But when children call and request assistance, they are ignored, dismissed, and threatened.”
Terri Sutton and Sharon Nichols, each charged with one count of willful neglect of duty, stood trial in Detroit’s 36th District Court in early January 2008. Sutton was essentially accused of disregarding protocol by requesting a police dispatch instead of emergency services, but on January 16 her charges were dropped.
Nichols initially asserted that she was unable to hear Robert Turner over the phone. With the emergency dispatch conversations recorded as evidence, however, prosecutors had no trouble persuading the five women and one man jury that she was responsible, and on January 18 they found her guilty after a five-day trial.
She was sentenced to one year of probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $450 fine on March 11, 2008.
“We are thrilled that the jury found Ms. Nichols’ defense to be without merit,” said Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Lori Weingarden. “Her defense was that she was incapable of hearing the child. How could she tell that it was a prank call if that were true?
While Weingarden and Fieger were pleased with the verdict, they urged all 911 operators in the United States to take calls seriously and asserted that improper training had likely caused numerous wrongful de*aths in the past. Nothing, however, will ever bring Robert Turner’s mother back or erase the pain of that dreadful night in 2006, regardless of the repercussions for the operators or the system overhauls.