The long process of selecting a jury began Monday in the criminal trial of Dr. Dipak Desai and nurse anesthetist Ronald Lakeman stemming from a 2007 hepatitis C outbreak.
But it all may be short-circuited.
District Judge Valerie Adair said she might suspend jury selection today while the Nevada Supreme Court decides whether to halt the trial to hear defense questions about Desai’s ability to assist his lawyers.
Desai’s lead defense lawyer, Richard Wright, on Monday filed papers asking the high court to intervene, and the court indicated it was seriously considering the request by ordering prosecutors to respond in writing by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The Supreme Court also allowed Wright to file a copy under seal of the confidential report authored by an independent Los Angeles neurologist who reviewed hospital reports of small strokes Desai suffered in February.
“This kind of throws everything off,” Adair said after hearing about the Supreme Court’s afternoon order.
Adair said she wanted to finish questioning the first group of 30 prospective jurors this morning, then decide whether to proceed with the next group. Prosecutors indicated they would need to spend time on their response to the high court.
Wright contends Desai’s right to a fair trial would be violated without an “accurate competency evaluation.” He asked the Supreme Court to stay the proceedings within two weeks, before a jury is selected.
Desai, 63, who surrendered his Nevada medical license after the outbreak was disclosed in 2008, and Lakeman, 65, face a series of charges, including second-degree murder, theft, insurance fraud and criminal neglect of patients.
Another nurse originally charged in the high-profile case, Keith Mathahs, 76, pleaded guilty late last year and agreed to testify against Desai and Lakeman
The charges focus on the hepatitis C infections of seven former Desai patients. Health officials concluded six contracted the deadly virus through unsafe injection practices on Sept. 21, 2007. Another was infected on July 25, 2007.
One patient, Rodolfo Meana, died of hepatitis C complications last year.
Jurors are being selected from a pool of 500 Southern Nevada residents. About 100 have been eliminated based on written questionnaires. The trial is expected to last more than six weeks.
Last week, Adair ruled that strokes Desai suffered in February did not further harm his ability to help his lawyers and that there was no need to reopen the issue of his competency.
The judge made her decision after reading the 28-page report of the Los Angeles neurologist, David Palestrant.
The neurologist suggested Desai might be exaggerating his physical impairment, a finding state medical experts made after past strokes.
Wright told Adair last week that he was not prepared to go to trial, arguing Desai was “pathetically not competent.”
The lawyer pleaded with Adair to schedule an evidentiary hearing for a neurologist to explain his findings. Adair denied the request.
Wright had told Adair at the time that he would appeal her decision.