Judge Admits Evidence About Former Casper Doctor’s Sexual Behavior
A Natrona County District Court judge on Friday allowed a hearing to remain open that disclosed a sex act of a former Casper doctor 25 years ago.
Judge Thomas Sullins denied a motion to close the hearing by the attorneys of Dr. Paul Harnetty, who is accused of multiple counts of sexual assault.
That evidence, especially an event "long ago and far away," is exceptional and could greatly prejudice a jury when Harnetty is put on trial next year, attorney John Miner said.
"We would object to the media and anyone being present," Miner said during the motion to close the 404(b) hearing. Under the Wyoming Rules of Evidence, 404(b) evidence shows "other crimes, wrongs, or acts" about motive that illustrate often unrelated bad conduct for which a defendant is not on trial.
Miner and defense attorney Don Fuller not only wanted to close the hearing during which the evidence would be presented, they wanted to close the hearing that would discuss the hearing.
Sullins denied both requests.
Harnetty, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is charged with eight counts of second-degree sexual assault and two counts of third-degree sexual assault. If convicted on all counts he could face between 16 and 190 years of imprisonment.
The case began in October 2015 when police received a report of three women who claimed Harnetty conducted himself inappropriately during their verbal and physical examinations. Over the next year, three more women reported such conduct according to the charging documents filed in January 2017. Harnetty was arrested in Minnesota that month.
During the hearing Friday, Miner said the sexual assault case already has received widespread attention in traditional and social media in which Harnetty, who is not a public figure, has been subjected to salacious speculation.
Opening the 404(b) hearing to the public, especially if the hearing reveals the first point of evidence Miner called "dynamite," will highly prejudice the jury against Harnetty, Miner said.
But Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri said the victims have a right to be present at court hearings.
Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, hired by the company that owns the Casper Star-Tribune, added that if the public and the media are excluded, the victims and their families are excluded, too.
While Moats said he didn't know what Miner wanted to protect, the case itself didn't seem exceptional.
Sullins agreed, saying other sexual assault cases have revealed ostensibly damaging information about defendants, and questions about controversial evidence possibly tainting a jury can be dealt with during jury selection.
Besides, Sullins added, "courts should have their doors open."
With the 404(b) hearing opened, Taheri outlined the categories of the evidence showing Harnetty's abusing his position as an authority figure:
- When Harnetty was 22 in 1992, he sexually assaulted the 11-year-old brother of a woman he was dating.
- Sexually harassing nurses who worked for him.
- Sexual harassment and improper conduct toward patients.
- An improper response to a friend of one of the victims.
- Looking for attractive patients.
- Improper sexual contact with patients such as anally penetrating women giving birth.
- Not wearing gloves during exams.
- Patients smelling alcohol on his breath when he was performing examinations.
- A history of inappropriate sexual behavior when he was practicing medicine in Georgia.
Taheri said introducing this evidence will bolster the credibility of the victims.
It also counters Harnetty's assertions the victims mistakenly inferred his actions were sexual rather that standard medical procedure, he said.
"The key here is to show motive and intent," Taheri said, adding he conceded none of these actions resulted in criminal convictions.
But Miner said the assault of the boy, which occurred a long time ago, is "dynamite" and not related to the charges against Harnetty.
When the jury hears this, the trial will no longer be about sexual assault, Miner said. "You cannot say anything more prejudicial about a person than that he's a pedophile."
Miner also objected to the other evidence such as the nurses were not victims, the actions he took during delivering babies was medically proper.
Taheri responded that the evidence he presented showed a pattern of control.
"We're not talking about a married man dating a nurse," he said. "It's about being in a position of authority."
Sullins said he will review the evidence in the next two weeks, adding it won't automatically be entered at the trial. The defense attorneys can still challenge it, he said.
Miner then made one last plea.
What will happen when the media report Harnetty's sexual assault of the boy, and can Sullins do anything to influence that, Miner asked. "Is the court going to allow this?"
The judge responded that he doubted he can dictate what the media report.
Sullins also referred to his earlier comment in the hearing: "I said this is an open courtroom."