By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona nurse pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to raping a severely disabled woman in a crime that only came to light when the victim unexpectedly gave birth in the long-term care facility where she had been a patient for about two decades.
Nathan Sutherland, 36, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackled at the wrists and legs, entered his plea during a brief arraignment 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, has been charged with one count each of sexual assault and abuse of a vulnerable adult. He has been held on $500,000 bail since last month.
Police said they arrested Sutherland on the basis of DNA evidence after the woman, who is in her 20s, went into labor on Dec. 29 at Hacienda HealthCare. Investigators collected DNA samples from all male employees of the facility.
Sutherland's lawyer, Dave Gregan, said after the arraignment he would work to uphold his client's due process rights.
"Mr. Sutherland is entitled to constitutional protection," Gregan told reporters. "Mr. Sutherland, just as you and I are, is entitled to a full defense."
Gregan has previously said prosecutors lack direct evidence of guilt, that the defense would conduct its own DNA tests and that Sutherland had no prior criminal history.
The woman was disabled by seizures during early childhood and 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 she 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 to the media last month.
Hacienda said its employees were unaware the woman was pregnant before she went into labor, according to police.
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 to oversee operations at the facility after Arizona regulators ordered the site placed under independent management.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman)