Ex-Arizona nurse pleads guilty in sex assault of woman in vegetative state

PHOENIX — A former Arizona nurse accused of abusing a woman in a vegetative state who later gave birth to his child pleaded guilty on Thursday to sexual assault, prosecutors said.

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According to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Nathan Sutherland, 39, also pleaded guilty to one felony count of abuse of a vulnerable adult, The Arizona Republic reported.

Sutherland, who worked in a Phoenix nursing home, could face between 5.25 to 10 years in prison for the sexual assault, the newspaper reported. The abuse of a vulnerable adult is punishable by lifetime probation, the Republic reported.

Sutherland was caring for the victim as a licensed practical nurse at Hacienda HealthCare in Phoenix before the victim gave birth to a boy on Dec. 29, 2018.

An employee at the facility was changing the garments of the then-29-year-old woman and noticed the patient was in labor, according to the Republic. Employees told police that they had no idea the woman was pregnant, the newspaper reported.

Sutherland was arrested after police tested a DNA sample taken from him by court order.

In 1992 the victim was in a near-drowning incident at the age of three that left her in a vegetative state, KTVK reported. Her child now is under the guardianship of her mother, according to the Republic.

Sutherland initially pleaded not guilty to the charges in February, but Benjamin Taylor, a defense attorney not affiliated with the case, told KTVK he believed that the defendant opted for a plea deal to receive a lighter prison sentence.

“If you go to trial in the case, you could lose, get convicted -- you’re looking at a lot more time in prison. This gives him the opportunity to try to negotiate something, try to argue for the least amount of time and you know your parameters,” Taylor told the television station. “The thing about a plea agreement is you know exactly what you’re looking at. You’re looking at between five years and 10 years and no more, no less.”

Sutherland’s case also led to a lawsuit filed by the victim’s parents against the state of Arizona, the Republic reported. The woman’s parents claimed that despite promises from the state that only women would tend to their daughter, Sutherland had cared for her on hundreds of occasions from 2012 through 2018, the newspaper reported.

A licensed practical nurse, Sutherland worked at the facility since at least 2012 and was assigned to a unit treating intellectually disabled people, two years later, The New York Times reported, citing a 2019 statement by Hacienda HealthCare.

Sutherland was fired immediately after the company learned of his arrest, the statement said.

“After more than 2 1/2 years, all of us at Hacienda Healthcare are relieved that Nathan Sutherland has finally pleaded guilty to his awful offenses,” Perry Petrilli, CEO of Hacienda Healthcare, said in a statement. “We have cooperated in every way possible with law enforcement and investigators - and now we hope the judge will sentence Sutherland appropriately given the severity of his crimes. As ever, our hearts are with the victim and her family. May these final steps in the legal process help them find peace.”

Davena Ballard, who was a nurse at a Hacienda-affiliated program, said she was unhappy with the plea deal.

“This man did a heinous crime and he’s getting a slap on the wrist and it’s not right and everyone I talked to that worked at Hacienda, they’re furious,” Ballard told KTVK. “None of us can believe that’s all he’s going to get is a slap on the wrist.”

Sutherland will next appear in court on Oct. 4, with sentencing scheduled for Nov. 4, the television station reported.