By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
A caregiver whose conviction for killing a Solvang ALS patient was later overturned by an appellate court has filed a civil lawsuit against Santa Barbara County alleging malicious prosecution and more.
Wanda Nelson has sued the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices, along with Chief Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser and sheriff’s deputies Charlie Bosma and Matthew Fenske.
In addition to claiming malicious prosecution, the lawsuit filed by Los Angeles-based attorneys Michael J. Curls and Nichelle Jones in Santa Barbara Superior Court also alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, false arrest and false imprisonment and Bane Act, or civil rights, violations.
“Defendants’ acts and omissions … were willful, wanton, malicious, oppressive, in bad faith and done with reckless disregard or with deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of the plaintiff, entitling plaintiff to exemplary and punitive damages from each individual defendant in an amount to be proven at trial,” the civil lawsuit says.
In 2015, Nelson, then 63, and Marjorie Good, then 87, were indicted by a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury on charges stemming from the death of Heidi Good, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Marjorie Good was Heidi’s mother.
Heidi Good, also known as Heidi Good Swiacki, died March 25, 2013, eight years after her diagnosis with the neurodegenerative disease.
Nelson was running an errand at the request of Heidi Good when she died after a hose on her ventilator became disconnected, causing her to asphyxiate.
The criminal case originally centered on whether the women conspired to kill Heidi Good or if the hose became disconnected accidentally while Marjorie Good was outside trimming bushes and apparently did not hear the breathing machine’s alarm.
Prosecutors contended the women had financial motives for killing Heidi — Marjorie Good allegedly feared she was being written out of her daughter’s will, and Nelson owed taxes as an independent contractor.
At trial, a jury acquitted Nelson of first- and second-degree murder but found her guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
A separate jury also acquitted Marjorie Good of murder charges but remained deadlocked on a lesser charge.
After a judge declared a mistrial, the District Attorney’s Office opted not to retry the elderly woman.
In November 2017, a state appeals court overturned Nelson’s conviction, ruling that the case lacked sufficient evidence of criminal negligence against Nelson.
However, in May 2019 the same appellate panel reversed a local judge’s finding of factual innocence, saying “reasonable cause exists to believe that respondent committed the offense.”
The civil lawsuit also suggested Nelson’s race played a role in the prosecution.
“Immediately after Heidi’s death, plaintiff, the only African-American player in this incident, became a scapegoat for defendants Gresser, Bosma and Fenske, who conspired to fabricate and exclude evidence in an effort to ‘invent’ probable cause that would lead to plaintiff’s arrest,” the civil lawsuit said.
The lawsuit contends the defendants “fabricated evidence, intentionally and willful ignored exculpatory evidence, and coerced and misrepresented witness statements.
“The defendants … were willfully blind to all of the evidence, readily available to them, which demonstrated that plaintiff has absolutely nothing to do with Heidi’s death,” the lawsuit said.
Nelson’s civil lawsuit originally was filed in federal court, but dismissed due to jurisdictional issues, leading to the Santa Barbara filing.
Nelson’s attorneys also have filed a federal appeal seeking to keep the case there.
The Santa Barbara case was filed Nov. 14, and attorneys for the county said they have not had time to submit a response.
However, in the federal case, they denied the allegations including that the defendants made any intentional and reckless false statements, recklessly disregarded the truth, caused Nelson to be falsely arrested, or violated her Fourth Amendment rights.
“At no time did Deputy District Attorney Gresser, Sgt. Fenske or Deputy Bosma fabricate, withhold, suppress, or ignore exculpatory evidence during the course of the investigation,” the county’s attorney said in a federal filing.
They also denied Nelson’s allegations that sheriff’s detectives consulted with prosecutors to obtain false evidence.
Nelson is seeking general damages, medical expenses, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other relief, claiming she has suffered “great mental and physical pain, suffering, anguish, fright, nervousness, anxiety, shock, humiliation, indignity, embarrassment, harm to reputation.
A case management conference has been scheduled for March 16, 2020, before Santa Barbara Judge Colleen Sterne.
Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.