Desai trial to move forward despite strokes, judge rules

The long-awaited criminal trial of Dr. Dipak Desai stemming from the 2007 hepatitis C outbreak is moving forward as planned next week.

District Judge Valerie Adair ruled from the bench Tuesday that a series of small strokes Desai suffered in February did not further harm his ability to assist his lawyers and that there was no need to reopen the issue of his competency.

“I don’t see any reason to delay the trial,” Adair said.

The judge made her decision after reading a confidential 28-page report from an independent Los Angeles neurologist who reviewed the hospital reports of Desai’s February strokes.

The neurologist, David Palestrant, suggested Desai might have been exaggerating the extent of his physical impairments, Adair said.

Adair ordered both sides to prepare to select a jury on Monday in the high-profile case, which is expected to last four to six weeks. The jurors will be selected from a pool of 500 Clark County residents.

Desai’s lead defense lawyer, Richard Wright, told Adair that he disagreed with her assessment of Palestrant’s report, and he pleaded with her to schedule an evidentiary hearing to call the neurologist to the witness stand to explain his findings.

Wright said he was not prepared to go to trial next week, arguing his client was “pathetically not competent at this time and cannot assist me.”

The longtime attorney said that he hasn’t been able to communicate with Desai since his latest strokes.

Adair denied the hearing request, which prosecutors opposed, and Wright said he would appeal her decision to the Nevada Supreme Court and seek a delay in the trial.

Desai, 63, wearing a navy sweater vest and tennis shoes, walked into court on his own Tuesday and generally looked straight ahead or downward while sitting behind the defense table during the hourlong hearing.

Last month, Desai was escorted into court in a wheelchair.

Adair ordered the independent evaluation after Desai was taken by ambulance Feb. 24 to Summerlin Hospital and treated for six days.

Wright provided Adair with a letter from the neurologist who treated Desai at the hospital, saying Desai suffered a “multifocal ischemic stroke within the left cerebral hemisphere.”

In a letter to Adair, Wright said Desai, who had two previous strokes, was unable to speak “recognizable” words when he visited him in the hospital.

“My understanding is that there is additional and severe damage to the areas of the brain controlling executive functions, including speech, memory and cognition,” Wright wrote.

Wright first challenged Desai’s competency after his June 2010 indictment, but Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Staudaher contended the former gastroenterologist was faking his impairments from the strokes to obstruct the criminal case.

After a six-month evaluation at Nevada’s secure mental hospital in Sparks in 2011, medical experts there concluded Desai was exaggerating the effects of the strokes.

Desai and nurse anesthetist Ronald Lakeman, 65, face a series of charges, including second-degree murder, theft, insurance fraud and obtaining money under false pretenses.

Another nurse charged in the case, Keith Mathahs, 76, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Desai and Lakeman.

The murder charge stems from the death of Rodolfo Meana, a victim of the hepatitis outbreak.

Desai performed the colonoscopy on Meana that led to his hepatitis infection, and Mathahs participated in the procedure.

Lakeman did not participate, but prosecutors contend he was culpable in Meana’s death under the theory of the murder charge, which alleges all three defendants were part of the conspiracy that endangered the lives of patients.

Health officials concluded Meana and five other patients contracted hepatitis C through unsafe injection practices on Sept. 21, 2007. Another patient was infected on July 25, 2007.

The outbreak was blamed on nurse anesthetists reusing vials of the sedative propofol between patients after the vials had become contaminated by patients with hepatitis C.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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