Last Thursday morning, at the Maricopa County courthouse, Corliss Ford got her life back.
It happened when a Superior Court judge rejected charges by the Arizona Attorney General's Office that the Phoenix nurse had abused and neglected three elderly residents in her care.
Judge Stanley Z. Goodfarb ordered the AG's Office to pay all attorney's fees in the protracted civil case. He did so largely because the state's lawyers failed to release key evidence that could have cleared Ford of wrongdoing before or during her three-day trial last November.
The evidence came to light when an assistant attorney general mistakenly gave Ford previously unreleased investigative reports and other documents. Those records were released after Ford's trial, but before Judge Goodfarb had announced his ruling in the case.
"Your office made a drastic mistake," Goodfarb told assistant attorney general Tom McClory, chief counsel of the AG's civil division.
"You failed to provide important information, [and] it prejudiced Mrs. Ford. . . . There was in fact no intentional abuse and neglect by Mrs. Ford. While there may have been some failure to act to the highest degree of care, she probably did the best that she could."
Ford's stunning victory came a week after a New Times story detailed how, months before her trial, AG's criminal investigators concluded she hadn't abused or neglected anyone.
Attorney General Grant Woods had ordered the criminal investigation, his public relations spokesman told the media in June 1992, after seeing photographs of three elderly people ridden with bone-deep bedsores and other maladies.
The story explained that the AG's Office hadn't filed criminal charges against Ford, but had sought, through a civil lawsuit, to keep Ford from ever again running an adult-care home in Arizona.
The Phoenix nurse has proclaimed her innocence ever since state officials raided her adult-care home, accusing her of abusing and neglecting elderly residents in her care.
Protestations of innocence, however, are the norm at the courthouse. The ghastly photographs taken by state Department of Health Services officials seemed proof positive that she had mistreated her elderly clients.
That "proof" was, in fact, wrong. Trial testimony in the civil case indicated this wasn't another tragic example of an evil person harming senior citizens in her care.
The evidence showed Ford kept many of the elderly, financially strapped residents at her unlicensed, unregistered home because they had nowhere else to go. In an unusual twist that spoke volumes about the weakness of the state's case, the alleged victims' family members--including a veteran Phoenix police officer--testified on Ford's behalf at her trial. (Two of Ford's alleged victims died in 1993; the third died in 1992.)
"They were all very elderly and very fragile, and they probably needed a higher degree of care," Goodfarb concluded, "but their families couldn't pay for more. If you want to blame anybody, point the finger at society. What you have is a giant underground of residential homes. Some do a much better job than Corliss Ford does, and some do a hell of a lot worse."
Last month, Ford attorney Tim Evens asked Judge Goodfarb to dismiss the case after the documents exonerating Ford surfaced. Evens pointed out he would have called AG criminal investigator Nancy Paine as a witness had he known of her written conclusion last April 1: "There was no abuse and neglect of patients."
But the AG's McClory argued the reports constituted "work product," contending that his office wasn't bound by law to turn them over to the defense. "Agent Paine was not competent to testify. . . . I don't know how she came to the conclusions that she did," McClory said.
That strategy didn't pass muster with Goodfarb.
"There was a very thorough investigation here," the judge said testily. "They must have thought she was an agent of the KGB. Considering other things I've seen with the AG's Office, you certainly invested a great deal of time and effort here . . . and they probably spent a substantial portion of the budget.
"Don't you think you had some, quote unquote, moral obligation to tell the families that you had found no criminal wrongdoing?"
Replied McClory, "That obviously is a very pertinent and compelling obligation--over on the criminal side, but I don't think it's appropriate for us on the civil side to comment."
McClory then admitted he had looked at only a portion of Ford's case records.
"You haven't even looked at the file?" an astonished Goodfarb asked.
"Because you don't want to know what's in it? I think I would have read everything in that file."
"In hindsight, things could have been done differently," McClory acknowledged near the end of the dramatic hearing.
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It remains uncertain who at the AG's Office made the decision not to turn over the exculpatory documents, either to Ford's attorney, or to Judge Goodfarb for inspection.
Goodfarb's ruling could reopen the door for Ford's return to the health-care field. But the judge noted in his concluding remarks, "My guess, however, is that she'll probably do something else."
And he's right, if Ford sticks to what she told New Times in an interview before Goodfarb ruled:
"There's no way I'd go back into it," said the mother of five, "though I have to make a living doing something. I just want to get my life back, my reputation. I'd rather die than abuse and neglect someone, and I want everyone to know that.