As a healthcare practitioner, having to testify in court is not reserved for just medical malpractice cases. This month we look at a situation in which the testimony of a nurse practitioner contributed to the conviction of a child sexual predator.
Ms N was a nurse practitioner working in the safe child center of the outpatient pediatric wing of a regional hospital. She had recently been certified as a Sexual Assault Nurse Practitioner and had begun seeing young patients who had been victims of assault. Although stressful and difficult, Ms N felt the work was worthwhile if she could help young survivors of abuse.
One day an 11-year old girl, KC, was brought to the medical center by her mother and a police officer. The girl lived with her mother in a poor area of dilapidated bungalow houses and trailer homes. Earlier that day, the girl’s mother had left her alone while she went to the store. While the mother was gone, a neighbor saw the girl, looking frightened, emerge from an abandoned trailer followed by Mr M, an adult male who lived nearby. Concerned, the neighbor called the girl’s mother and the police. After the girl told her mother that Mr M had touched her, the police officer suggested that they take KC to the safe child center at the hospital to be examined.
When they arrived to the hospital, the police officer who was with KC and her mother took Ms N aside and told her that the child was developmentally disabled and seemed more like a 7-year-old than an 11-year-old. Ms N thanked him for the information and then went into the examination room to speak with KC.
In the exam room, Ms N introduced herself to the child and her mother and explained that she was a nurse who was going to make sure that KC was okay. She weighed and measured the child while asking her simple questions such as her name, where she went to school, and the name of her regular pediatrician. When the girl seemed comfortable with her, Ms N asked KC if something had happened earlier that day. “Yes,” said the child, nodding. The girl then told Ms N that “the neighbor who lives in the red house” had taken her into an abandoned trailer.
“Do you know the name of that neighbor?” asked Ms N.
“Yeah,” said the girl. She then identified the man by name.
“Okay,” said Ms N. “What happened in the trailer?”
KC told Ms N that Mr M had pulled down her pants and touched her with his hands and mouth “down there,” gesturing with her hands toward her vulvar region. After a few minutes she was able to squirm away and run out of the house.
Ms N wrote everything the girl said in her notes, as well as the results of the examination, which indicated that no actual penetration had taken place.
Afterward, Ms N spoke with the police officer, who told her that the child had identified a neighbor by name. After putting the name into the police database, it was discovered that the neighbor, Mr M, was a sex offender who had failed to register once he had moved into KC’s neighborhood. Based on the information that KC had told her mother and the police officer, and the information she had told Ms N, the police began preparing an arrest warrant for Mr M.
Mr M was subsequently arrested. He was a convicted sexual offender who was out of jail and was supposed to have registered as a sex offender when he moved to a new community. Because this was a repeat offense, the prosecutor was not offering an incentive for Mr M to take a plea deal; thus, he decided that he would take his chances at trial.
At the trial, Ms N was called as a witness for the prosecution. She testified about her certification as a sexual assault specialist and explained to the jury that the purpose of her examination of KC was to diagnose any physical, psychological, or emotional injuries the victim may have suffered and to prescribe an appropriate course of treatment. She then described her conversation with KC, including the fact that the child had identified the perpetrator by name. Although the defense attorney objected loudly to this, shouting “Objection! Hearsay!”, the judge allowed Ms N to testify.
After the trial, the jury found Mr M guilty and sentenced him to 40 years in jail. Almost immediately, Mr M filed an appeal, saying that the lower court had abused its discretion by allowing Ms N to testify as to what KC had told her. The defense attorney argued that this was inadmissible hearsay.
The appellate court disagreed, allowed Ms N’s testimony to stand, and affirmed the defendant’s verdict and sentence.