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April 20, 2014

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Angry judge delays sentencing in hepatitis C case; 2nd person dies

A Nevada state court judge complained Thursday about chronic delays in getting state presentencing reports, but gave officials seven more weeks to complete an investigation before she sentences a former Las Vegas endoscopy clinic owner and a former employee for their felony convictions in a 2007 community hepatitis C outbreak.

Authorities separately reported the death of a second infected person in the case.

Prosecutor Michael Staudaher said he didn't have details about Michael Washington's death on Aug. 23 in Texas, and didn't immediately know if it would have an effect on the case against former Dr. Dipak Desai and former nurse-anesthetist Ronald Lakeman.

Washington's lawyer, Ed Bernstein, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that his 73-year-old client died in Dallas of complications from the incurable liver disease. Bernstein didn't immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.

Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair said in court that she was frustrated she couldn't sentence Desai and Lakeman as scheduled following their convictions on July 1.

But she said she couldn't impose sentence without a report from the Nevada Department of Parole and Probation.

"I'm telling you, this is an ongoing issue," the judge declared. "It's a staffing issue. It's not unusual for (Parole and Probation) to request additional time. This is not occurring just in this department, it is occurring in other departments as well."

Desai, 63, a prominent former Las Vegas doctor and state medical board member, was found guilty of all 27 criminal charges against him, including second-degree murder, in a viral outbreak that officials traced to his clinics and called one of the largest ever in the U.S.

Desai was also found guilty of the death of 77-year-old Rodolfo Meana in April 2012.

Desai sat motionless, handcuffed to another jail inmate in the courtroom, and said nothing. His wife, Kusam Desai, sat in the audience with her hands clasped and occasionally dabbed tears from her cheeks.

Lakeman, 66, was spared a murder conviction in Meana's death, but found guilty of 16 charges including insurance fraud, criminal neglect, reckless disregard, obtaining money under false pretenses and theft.

Desai and Lakeman each face what could amount to the rest of his life in prison for their convictions stemming from infections of seven people at Desai's Endoscopy Clinic of Southern Nevada.

Adair denied a request by Lakeman's lawyer, Frederick Santacroce, to release Lakeman to house arrest pending sentencing on the new date, Oct. 24.

Another former Desai clinic nurse anesthetist, Keith Mathahs, 77, is due for sentencing a week later after pleading guilty in December to five felonies, including criminal neglect of patients resulting in death, insurance fraud and racketeering. He testified against Desai and Lakeman and could get probation or up to six years in state prison.

Santacroce argued that Lakeman's rights were being violated because he was being held in limbo between jail and prison, and couldn't file an appeal until sentence was imposed.

"I recognize, Mr. Santacroce, the need for a resolution," the judge said. "However, I'm not going to tell (Parole and Probation) they have to move these defendants to the front of the line, ahead of the other defendants who are incarcerated at the Clark County Detention Center awaiting sentencing."

Adair said she didn't have authority to tell the Legislature to allocate more money to hire officers "so they can get these reports prepared in a more timely fashion."

But she said she will require department officials to show up in person Oct. 24 to explain any further delay.

Parole and Probation officials didn't immediately respond to messages.

Chief Clark County District Court Judge Jennifer Togliatti said a presentencing report "logjam" stemmed from a new state law requiring reports to be completed with enough time for defense attorneys to object before sentencing. She said it posed hardships on defendants, victims and victims' families.

"They have the same number of PSI report writers, but they don't have as much time," Togliatti said. "It's the new normal."

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