On February 20, 2006, Robert Turner, then five years old, witnessed his mother pass away in their Detroit, Michigan, home. When the terrified boy dialed 911, the emergency operators Terri Sutton and Sharon Nichols threatened to call the police if Turner wouldn't let them speak to his dying mother, who was unable to speak.
“Ok, well, you know what, then she’s gonna talk to the police ok?
Sutton reportedly said, citing CBS News. "I'm sending the police over there, and she's going to talk to them. You shouldn't be playing on the phone, it doesn't matter to me. Before I send the police to knock on the door and you get into trouble, put her on the phone.
Sherrill Turner, 46, had already passed away from a heart attack when they eventually arrived in place of an ambulance, leaving Robert Turner with nothing to do but watch in horror. Her family filed a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit, and the incident even resulted in the first-ever conviction of a 911 operator for willful neglect of duty. There have also been calls to completely restructure the current emergency dispatch system.
Robert Turner’s Tragic 911 Calls
For the Turner family, the fateful day in question appeared to be a typical Monday when it began. When Robert Turner saw his mother pass out in her bedroom just before six o'clock, their tragic loss came suddenly. The young boy made a responsible 911 call.
“My mom has passed out,” said Robert Turner.
It was the first call at 5:59. operator for emergency services Sharon Nichols received. The 5-year-old boy misinterpreted the 43-year-question old's about his father's whereabouts. Interestingly, Nichols reprimanded Turner before terminating the call when she refused to speak to his father when asked if she could.
“OK, well, I’m going to send the police to your house and find out what’s going on with you,” said Nichols.
Neither emergency medical personnel nor police officers arrived at the scene.
The following three hours were spent by Robert Turner observing the decline of his unconscious mother. By the time Turner dialed 911 once more at 9:02 p.m., she had tragically already passed away from complications caused by an enlarged heart. Terri Sutton, the operator, not only reprimanded the boy but also sent
an officer to the apartment at 1950 Spruce Street to punish him.
“It was taking too long,” said Turner about why he called 911 a second time. “And she said the same thing.”
Sherrill Turner was declared dead and her son was given into the custody of his relatives Delaina and Tyrone Patterson after police arrived at the scene at 9:40 p.m. Geoffrey Fieger, a family lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Terri Sutton, Sharon Nichols, and even the City of Detroit.
“Had somebody even followed up and sent a policeman like they did on the later call, really, to admonish Robert, rather than to help his mother, perhaps we wouldn’t be here,” said Fieger. “But no one came at all.”
“All that happened was that Robert was threatened and, really, intimidated from doing what his mother had taught him to do, which was to make an emergency call in an emergency situation.”
The Aftermath Of Sherrill Turner’s Death
When Geoffrey Fieger took on Robert Turner's case, he had already made a name for himself as the lawyer who defended Jack Kevorkian, the notorious pathologist who was accused of helping terminally ill patients commit suicide. He claimed that Sherrill Turner's death was the result of negligence.
If assistance had arrived within those crucial few minutes, "we firmly believe that his mom would have survived," said Fieger. "We'll also demonstrate that this is a common occurrence. Much more frequently than most people realize, this occurs. Additionally, no one would believe Robert if this tape didn't exist.
“We teach our children in the face of an emergency to call for help and call 911. But when children call and ask for help they’re ignored, they’re dismissed, and they’re threatened.”
Terri Sutton and Sharon Nichols both went on trial in Detroit's 36th District Court in early January 2008 on one count of willful neglect of duty. Sutton was essentially charged with flouting protocol by asking for a police dispatch as opposed to emergency services, but her charge was dropped on January 16.
Nichols initially contended that she couldn't hear Robert Turner clearly over the phone. However, with the emergency dispatch conversations recorded as evidence, the prosecution had no trouble persuading the jury of five women and one man that she could, and on January 18, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
On March 11, 2008, she was given a one-year probationary period, 100 hours of community service, and a $450 fine.
The verdict that Ms. Nichols' defense was without merit was welcomed by Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lora Weingarden. She argued that she was unable to hear the child. How could she know it was a joke call if that were the case? ”
Weingarden and Fieger expressed satisfaction with the verdict but urged 911 operators nationwide to take calls seriously and claimed inadequate training had probably already resulted in many wrongful deaths. But no matter what happens to the operators or how the system is changed, Robert Turner's mother won't ever be back, and nothing can take away the pain of that terrible night in 2006.