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Jury Rejects Murder Charges, Convicts ALS Caregiver of Involuntary Manslaughter

Wanda Nelson, 63, was accused of conspiring to kill Heidi Good of Solvang; second jury weighing elderly mother's fate

Wanda Nelson, 63, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Thursday in the death of Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013. However, she was acquitted of the more-serious charges of first- and second-degree murder.
Wanda Nelson, 63, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Thursday in the death of Solvang ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013. However, she was acquitted of the more-serious charges of first- and second-degree murder. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A caregiver accused of conspiring to murder a Solvang ALS patient three years ago was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Thursday by a jury in Santa Maria.

The panel, which began deliberations on Wednesday morning, found Wanda Nelson, 63, guilty in the death of Heidi Good on March 25, 2013.

However, the jurors — six men and six women — rejected the more-serious charges of first- and second-degree murder.

Nelson was charged along with Heidi Good's mother, Marjorie Good, who turned 90 this week.

A separate jury that will decide Marjorie Good's fate began deliberations on Thursday after closing arguments by her attorney, David Bixby.

Nelson’s attorney, Lori Pedego, said she was shocked at the guilty verdict for her client.

“I’m upset by the verdict. I’m always upset when an innocent person is convicted,” said Pedego, from the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office. “It’s certainly proof that it still happens.”

Nelson “loved and cared” for Heidi for more than six years as the debilitating disease left the woman paralyzed and dependent on a ventilator to breathe, Pedego added. 

“I do believe that an injustice did occur today,” Pedego said. “We can take solace in the fact that she was released from custody, and for the first time in 10 and a half months, she will at least be free to sleep in a comfortable bed and get medical care, which she greatly needs.”

At Pedego’s request and over the objections of the prosecution, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores ordered Nelson released from Santa Barbara County Jail on her own recognizance until her sentencing April 1.

“I know she will say that her faith got her through this. I wish I had full faith in the criminal-justice system, but I’ll have to rely on Wanda for some of her faith,” Pedego said.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser declined to comment on the verdict Thursday, saying she wanted to wait until after the second jury completes deliberations.

The women were accused of sedating Heidi Good and tampering with her ventilator, leading to her death by asphyxiation. Heidi had the neurodegenerative disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease.

A criminal grand jury handed down indictments against the two women after hearing evidence over several days last year.

Prosecutors alleged that the women had financial motives for killing Heidi — Marjorie allegedly feared she was being written out of her daughter's will and Nelson owed taxes as an independent contractor.

But defense attorneys countered that a flawed investigation led to the charges against the women, and asserted that a ventilator malfunction caused Heidi's death.

The ventilator alarm sounded for 30 minutes, according to the machine’s logs. At the time, Nelson was running an errand to pick up a prescription while Good reportedly was gardening.

“They kept telling me she left the house,” a female juror who sought an innocent verdict said of her fellow jurors.

The large amount of evidence and testimony to sift through made reaching a verdict hard, according the foreman, a teacher.

In reaching the guilty verdict, he added, jurors focused on the fact the paid caregiver had left the house.

“We didn’t think it was an intentional act,” the foreman said, adding that an otherwise healthy Heidi would not have died that day had somebody been there to attend to the alarm.

Nelson is due back in court April 1, when she reportedly could face a sentence ranging from probation to four years in state prison. 

In addition to granting her temporary freedom, the judge ordered Nelson to remain in Santa Barbara County and to stay away from the neighborhood where Heidi's husband, Stephen Swiacki, lives.

The judge has “great latitude” in determining the sentence of Nelson, who has no prior criminal history, Pedego said.

“Wanda  Nelson is innocent,” Pedego said. “She’s a lovely woman. I hope that this experience does not tarnish her future. She loves to care for people. She is the most caring individual I’ve ever met.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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