PHOENIX (Reuters) – An Arizona nurse pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to raping a severely disabled woman, a crime that came to light when the victim unexpectedly gave birth in the long-term care facility where she has a patient for about two decades.
Nathan Sutherland, 36, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackled at the wrists and legs, entered his plea at a brief arraignment hearing at the Maricopa County Superior Court. His next court appearance was set for March 19.
Sutherland, a licensed practical nurse who began working at Hacienda HealthCare Skilled Nursing Facility in Phoenix in 2012, faces one count each of sexual assault and abuse of a vulnerable adult. He has been held on $500,000 bail since last month.
Police arrested Sutherland last month after investigators linked him to the case through DNA evidence after the woman, who is in her 20s, went into labor on Dec. 29 at Hacienda HealthCare.
Sutherland’s lawyer, Dave Gregan, said he would work to uphold his client’s “process rights.”
Gregan has said previously that there was no direct evidence against his client, who had no prior criminal history, and that the defense planned to conduct its own DNA tests.
The woman, who has been disabled since very early childhood as a result of seizures, has spent most of her life in the nursing facility.
Although she was initially described by authorities as comatose, her parents have said that she is capable of responding to sound and making facial gestures, and has some ability to move her limbs, head and neck.
“The important thing is that she is a beloved daughter, albeit with significant intellectual disabilities,” they said in a letter released to the media last month.
Hacienda employees were not aware that the woman was pregnant before she went into labor, police say, and were first alerted to the case when the baby was born. Police then sought DNA samples from all male employees at the facility.
The facility said in a written statement that Sutherland was fired as soon as administrators learned of his arrest, and that he had undergone extensive background checks before being hired.
The baby, a boy who is being cared for by family members, is doing well, police have said.
Hacienda has since retained an Indiana-based company, Benchmark Human Services, to oversee operations at the nursing facility after Arizona regulators ordered the site placed under independent management.
Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Peter Szekely, Alistair Bell and Bill Berkrot