A pediatrician accused of sexually assaulting a patient told Frederick police detectives that he likely touched the woman’s genitals during an exam, but said it was unintentional, according to testimony on the second day of his trial.
In a recorded interview with detectives played Wednesday in the courtroom, Dr. Ernesto Cesar Torres was asked several different times by Detective Sean McKinney whether it was possible that the doctor’s hand touched any part of the 18-year-old woman’s genitals while he was feeling her abdomen as part of a physical exam on April 26.
The prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their cases directly to Frederick County Circuit Judge William R. Nicklas Jr., who will offer his own judgment at the end of the trial because Torres elected to have a bench trial rather than a jury trial.
The charges against Torres include second-degree rape, second-degree assault and fourth-degree sex offense.
The detective had already established that Torres, by his own admission, had put his hand partially down the woman’s pants in order to complete the abdominal exam.
“Did you ever touch her vagina?” McKinney can be heard asking in the recording.
“I might have ... but not intentionally or with any purpose,” Torres replies, explaining that he had been moving his hand from right to left across the woman’s abdomen and may have touched her genitals briefly in doing so.
When McKinney asked again whether Torres’ hand touched his patient’s genitals a short time later, Torres replied, “Probably so.”
Richard Bricken and Margaret Teahan, Torres’ defense attorneys, reiterated their initial objection to the recording being played to Nicklas. Nicklas noted the objection, but pointed out that it had already been overruled before trial by a different judge.
Regardless of the doctor’s statements in the recording, the defense’s and the prosecution’s accounts of the physical contact between Torres and the patient — who testified Tuesday shortly after the start of the trial — varied.
While the patient told Nicklas that Torres had moved his hand straight down her pants to touch her vagina before assaulting her for about five minutes, the defense has focused on the anxiety attack the patient said she was suffering during the physical exam.
Specifically, Teahan questioned the young woman’s perception of time and recollection of events during the panic attack while she cross-examined the woman Tuesday.
The woman made the appointment because one of the two medications Torres prescribed her to treat her anxiety made her drowsy and the woman wanted a medicine checkup, according to previous testimony.
Attorneys also heard testimony Wednesday morning from current and former employees of Torres.
While questioning both Jennifer Jones, who worked in the office checking in patients at the time, and Gloria Grove — Torres’ office manager at the time — Teahan asked several questions about Torres’ physical tendencies, specifically if the doctor, who is 69, seemed less in control of his movements, particularly over the last year.
“He was more shaky, but it just got worse over the years. It wasn’t anything where I was like, ‘Oh, gosh!’ It just got worse over the years,” Jones said of the doctor’s hands shaking.
Staff had different opinions regarding how to handle whether a nurse or other “chaperone” should be present in the room with Torres during an examination, according to testimony by several employees.
While Jones said there was no official policy, Stephanie Kavanaugh, who was working as a medical assistant for Torres at the time of the appointment, said if patients under 18 weren’t accompanied by a parent, the staff was required to be in the room with them. If the patients were over 18, a nurse or assistant was required to ask them if they wanted a chaperone.
Michelle Miller, the employee who took the woman back to the examination room on the day of her appointment, said she did not ask the young woman if she wanted a chaperone, despite the fact that the woman had arrived without a parent.
“And why didn’t you?” Assistant State’s Attorney Joyce Roldan King asked next.
“We don’t normally do that,” Miller said, reiterating her testimony earlier that, to her knowledge, there was no official policy regarding how to handle such situations.
When the trial resumed Wednesday afternoon, the state called Pam Holtzinger, a registered nurse and forensic nurse examiner with Frederick Health Hospital who has also helped train nurses. Holtzinger, speaking generally about her experience, indicated that it was best practice to use chaperones in situations like the appointment in question, but Teahan, in the defense’s opening statement, described Torres as an “old school” doctor and his medical practice as “from another era.”
“It was very informal there, and because it was very informal, I believe that sometimes patients weren’t asked [if they wanted a chaperone],” Teahan said.
Teahan went on to describe Torres as “an innocent man who was wrongly accused,” pointing out that, in her mind, Torres asking the patient to lie down was a clear sign of him trying to calm her down when she was visibly upset and in the beginning stages of an anxiety attack. Teahan also posited that, because anxiety often manifests itself in stomach ailments, the doctor wanted to conduct an abdominal exam that was obstructed in part by the tight-fitting running pants the woman was wearing, leading him to touch the woman beneath the fabric.
In short, Teahan argued that none of Torres’ actions seemed out of step with his role as a clinician and, even if his hand briefly touched a portion of the woman’s genitals as he indicated in his interview with detectives, there was no evidence that he did so with criminal intent.
“This man is not a rapist, he is not a sex offender and he did not assault [the woman],” Teahan said, concluding her opening statement.
Nicklas adjourned court for the day at approximately 3:15 p.m. and indicated the defense would proceed with its witnesses and case Thursday at approximately 9 a.m. The trial is scheduled to last through Thursday.