The case of a doctor accused of sexually assaulting six female patients will likely revolve around whether he was acting within his role as a doctor and whether his profession gave him significant influence over the alleged victims.
Authorities allege Paul Harnetty, who was an OB-GYN at Community Health Center of Central Wyoming, touched them during physical exams in ways that were unusual and made them uncomfortable, court documents show. Some said he touched their vaginal area without gloves, and all said he rubbed them in ways that didn’t seem to be part of a medical exam.
Speaking Thursday at Harnetty’s preliminary hearing, assistant district attorney Brett Johnson told the court that the criminal case will ultimately center on intent: Did Harnetty touch the women the way they said he did as part of a medical exam or because he was sexually gratified by it?
“The question is: Do we have a sex offender who is also an OB-GYN?” Johnson asked.
Prosecutors charged Harnetty, 47, with nine counts of second-degree sexual assault and three counts of third-degree sexual assault in January after the women told police the gynecologist assaulted them during exams in 2014 and 2015. At the two-hour preliminary hearing Thursday, Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Michael Patchen did not bind over one count of third-degree sexual assault and one count of second-degree sexual assault because there was not probable cause to support those charges. The other 10 charges will move forward to Natrona County District Court.
John Miner, Harnetty’s attorney, argued Thursday that it’s possible the doctor was just performing thorough exams, perhaps looking for evidence of sexually transmitted diseases. He also said Wyoming law does not specifically list doctors as people in position of authority, which prosecutors use as the basis for many of their charges. The statute does not list doctors but does define the category as “any other person who, by reason of his position, is able to exercise significant influence over a person.”
Johnson said that a doctor — especially a gynecologist — certainly falls in that category.
“What other person on the planet can reasonably say, ‘Ma’am, strip down, lay down and put your legs up?’” Johnson asked.
Judge Patchen agreed with Johnson and said that women in that position “don’t really have a way to complain.”
Harnetty appeared in court Thursday in a black suit. He was previously released from custody on $50,000 bond, which allows him to return to Minnesota, where he now lives. He did not speak during the hearing or turn around to face the benches behind him, where some of the alleged victims sat.
The lead detective on the case, Sara Nelson, outlined her investigation and the six women’s reports during the hearing Thursday. All of the women, who were in their 20s or early 30s at the time, said that the way Harnetty touched them during the exams felt like it had a sexual nature.
One of the women told police that she and Harnetty had engaged in consensual sexual activities at least twice. But Harnetty continued to make sexual advances and touch her inappropriately during exams after she repeatedly asked him to return to a strictly professional patient-doctor relationship. On at least 10 occasions, the doctor tried to kiss her, grab her breasts or touch her genitals in a sexual way during exams even after she told him to stop, the documents allege.
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Another woman said Harnetty put his ungloved fingers in her vagina and continuously moved his fingers in and out of her for about a minute and a half, the documents state. She also said that he once smelled so strongly of alcohol that “it smelled like he just took a shot.”
Many of the women tried to find other doctors after their exams with Harnetty, Nelson said. However, many were unable to immediately find another doctor who was taking patients and therefore returned to him.
At least two of the women submitted formal complaints to Community Health Center of Central Wyoming about their exams with Harnetty but never heard back from the health center, the detective said. One woman also contacted a Converse County organization that provides services to victims of crime but didn’t want to file criminal charges against Harnetty, the detective said.
“The alleged victim didn’t want to because she feared she wouldn’t have any medical care if she complained on the doctor,” Nelson said Thursday.
Nelson said she also interviewed nurses and other witnesses who could have been in the exam room at the same time as the women. Those interviewed said they didn’t remember those specific patients but that it was possible they could have had their back turned or have stepped out of the room at the time of the alleged assaults.
Harnetty voluntarily relinquished his Wyoming medical license in October after the state medical board began investigating alleged “wrongful practice,” according to the board’s website. One of the complaints against him regarded the doctor’s arrest on suspicion of public intoxication by Casper police in February 2015.
After the arrest, Harnetty took a leave of absence from the Wyoming Medical Center, where he had privileges that allowed him to practice there. Harnetty continued to practice during his absence but neglected to tell at least one patient that he wouldn’t be able to deliver her baby, according to medical board documents.
Harnetty stopped practicing at Community Health Centers in October 2015 and resigned his privileges at Wyoming Medical Center in November 2015, board of medicine documents show.
The doctor was also investigated by the medical board in Georgia, where he previously worked. He also settled a medical malpractice lawsuit in 2010 for $1 million, according to the Georgia Composite Medical Board. No other details about the suit were immediately available.
During her testimony Thursday, Detective Nelson said there were numerous complaints of negligence and malpractice against Harnetty from his time at a hospital in Macon, Georgia. Some of the complaints involved allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, Nelson said.
If convicted, Harnetty could receive up to 20 years for each count of second-degree sexual assault and up to 15 years in prison for each count of third-degree sexual assault.