Man accused of incapacitated woman’s rape at Hacienda Healthcare pleads guilty to charges

A man accused of sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman who later gave birth at a long-term care facility in Phoenix pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and vulnerable adult abuse charges on Sept. 2.

Plea made as part of agreement

Nathan Sutherland's guilty plea was reportedly made as part of an agreement, where Sutherland reportedly agreed to a prison sentence of between five to 10 years and lifetime probation.

Sutherland was facing a maximum of 14 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 4.

Scandal unfolded in 2018

The pregnancy was discovered in December 2018 when an employee at Hacienda Healthcare was changing the garments of the then-29-year-old victim and noticed she was in the process of delivering a child. Employees told police that they had no idea the woman was pregnant.

She lived at Hacienda for 26 years, until the child’s birth. Her medical conditions stem from a brain disorder that caused motor and cognitive impairments and vision loss. She was also left with no functional use of her limbs.

Continuing coverage: Hacienda HealthCare Investigation

Sutherland, a licensed practical nurse, was fired by Hacienda after his arrest and has since given up his nursing license.

Police said Sutherland’s DNA matched a sample taken from the woman’s son. The victim’s mother is the boy’s guardian.

Scandal spurred review of facility by state agencies

The surprise birth triggered reviews by state agencies, highlighted safety concerns for patients who are severely disabled or incapacitated and prompted the resignations of Hacienda’s chief executive and one of the victim’s doctors.

It led to a lawsuit from the victim’s parents that alleged Sutherland had cared for their daughter on hundreds of occasions from 2012 through 2018, despite promises from the state — which contracts with companies like Hacienda to provide services to people with developmental disabilities — that only women would tend to her. An expert on behalf of her family has said many of Sutherland’s encounters with the patient occurred overnight, when fewer staff members and visitors were around.

Lawyers for the family also said Hacienda missed dozens of signs that the woman was carrying a baby, pointing out that she had gained weight, had a swollen belly and missed menstrual periods in the months before the child was born. They said the victim, who has a feeding tube and whose nutrition was reduced in response to her weight gain during the pregnancy, delivered the boy while severely dehydrated and without pain medications.

A judge has approved a $15 million settlement against a doctor who cared for the woman for 26 years while she lived at Hacienda Healthcare. The doctor’s insurer has argued it has no obligation to pay that amount.

Following the scandal, the former CEO of Hacienda Healthcare stepped down from his position. On Sept. 2, the current Hacienda CEO issued a statement on the latest development, stating:

The state of Arizona, which contracts with companies like Hacienda to provide services to people with developmental disabilities, settled last summer for $7.5 million.

Legal expert speaks out

Russ Richelsoph, a criminal defense attorney, says many felony cases similar to this case don't make it to trial because of plea deals.

"You know, the reason why a defendant would take a plea agreement rather than going to trial is usually, they get something in exchange," said Richelsoph. He is not connected to this case.

Back in May, Sutherland lost a bid to throw out DNA evidence that investigators say tied him to the sexual assault.

"Once that was litigated and the judge decided that ‘no, the DNA evidence is going to be allowed in, and the jury will hear it,’ you know that's definitely a factor in deciding whether or not to take a plea agreement," said Richelsoph.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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