Friday, June 11, 2010

Sexual assault nurse's erroneous findings might have helped convict innocent men of sexual assault

The news story reprinted below is a disturbing report that ought to be on the front page of every newspaper in America.  A nurse in Erie, Pennsylvania named Rhonda Henderson, responsible for making medical findings with respect to alleged sexual assault victims, is charged with making false or overblown findings that might have led to the conviction of innocent people for sex crimes.  Authorities in Erie, County and in adjacent Crawford County are taking measures to insure that defendants got a fair trial, but the damage has been done -- to the integrity of the system, and to the accused men who were not given fair trials. 

The power of sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) in many rape and sexual assault cases should not be underestimated: "Prosecutors have found SANEs to be credible witnesses in court as a result of their extensive experience and expertise in conducting evidentiary exams. The Director of a Wisconsin SANE program reported that during a 3 1/2-year period, they had a 100-percent conviction rate in cases where a SANE testified at trial."

There is a glaring need to reevaluate the role of SANE nurses in charging and convicting men and boys of sex crimes. While these women are held out as trained medical experts, some, and perhaps many, seem to have political agendas that fatally compromise their objectivity.  As Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson wrote in their landmark "Until Proven Innocent": ". . . many of the women who choose such careers see themselves as advocates for rape accusers. And when advocates play critical roles in gathering and describing evidence, there is a danger that their ideological commitments will trump open-minded analysis of all available evidence." (Page 377.)

When a woman makes a false rape claim against an innocent man or boy, and another woman who is held out to the jury as a medical expert lends her imprimatur to the false claim, the innocent man or boy has no realistic chance of avoiding a conviction at trial and a lengthy incarceration.  Many men faced with this prospect enter guilty pleas so they will receive less than the maximum sentence. The presumptively innocent should not need to worry about the misandric motives of women their tax dollars help employ, and defendants should always be afforded access to their own tax-funded medical experts to review the findings of the SANE nurse.

DA: Erie forensic nurse's findings in question

False or overblown medical findings by a local nurse were used to investigate or prosecute at least 11 Erie County defendants for sexual assault, the Erie County District Attorney's Office said Monday.

Prosecutors now want defendants, victims and others to know that other cases -- both criminal cases and those involving the Erie County Office of Children and Youth -- might have been affected by inaccurate medical reports issued by the nurse, Rhonda Henderson, who examined purported victims of sexual assault in Erie County and elsewhere in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Authorities are doing "all in our power to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system in Erie County remains intact," District Attorney Jack Daneri said.

Daneri said Monday that his office is working to identify all sexual assault cases that involved medical examinations by Henderson after experts determined Henderson's medical findings were incorrect in several Erie County cases. The experts said Henderson's findings did not match the photos she took of the victims' bodies and that she sometimes identified injuries that did not exist or overstated evidence of injury, Daneri said.

Daneri said the review is being conducted in conjunction with the Office of Children and Youth, which also used Henderson to examine alleged child abuse victims.

Neither Henderson nor a lawyer who represents her could be reached for comment.

Daneri said that as his office identifies criminal cases that Henderson worked on, defendants in those cases or their lawyers will be sent letters informing them of the problems that have been identified with Henderson's work in other cases.

The defendants would then have the right to explore whether Henderson filed flawed medical reports in their cases and, possibly, to challenge their convictions.

Daneri said his office has identified more than 20 defendants who were convicted of sexual assault in cases in which Henderson's medical examinations played a role. He said the office plans to issue notices to those defendants first because they are incarcerated or have been incarcerated.

If a defendant identifies a problem with Henderson's medical findings, Daneri said, that could, but would not automatically, lead to a reversal in a case.

A defendant's decision to challenge a conviction and the response to that by prosecutors could depend on several factors, including what other evidence was in play in the case, such as the victim's statement or a confession by the defendant, Daneri said.

Daneri said there was no evidence that Henderson deliberately falsified or overstated evidence of trauma in her examination results.

"There is no criminal investigation being conducted," he said.

Most of those Henderson examined were children, Daneri said.

Henderson had worked for Saint Vincent Health Center. Daneri said she is no longer employed there.

"My understanding is that she left on her own accord," he said.

James McNamara, a lawyer for Saint Vincent, said the hospital has cooperated fully with the District Attorney's Office.

"This is a serious situation and we are taking this very seriously," he said. "Since this is an ongoing investigation, I am not at liberty to comment further."

Daneri said an expert in Allegheny County first flagged the problem on April 1. The expert, Mary Carrasco, had examined Henderson's work in a sexual assault case that was being prosecuted in another county, Daneri said.

Carrasco found that Henderson's medical findings of injuries to the purported victim were "completely inconsistent" with the photos Henderson had taken of the purported victim's body, Daneri said.

Carrasco, who heads a center that assesses suspected child abuse victims at Mercy Health Center in Pittsburgh, informed Daneri of her concerns.

Daneri said his office then located 11 pending Erie County sexual assault cases involving medical examinations by Henderson and sent her findings to two nationally recognized experts in the field of child abuse medical examination. Two of the cases are awaiting sentencing, five are awaiting trial and four are awaiting a charging decision, Daneri said.

The experts found Henderson issued "erroneous findings and/or substantial 'overcalling' of injuries" in all 11 cases, Daneri said.

Daneri said Henderson also had done medical examinations of purported victims for prosecutors in other Pennsylvania counties. He said the state District Attorney's Association has been notified of the review in Erie County.