Editor’s note: The following story contains a description of an alleged crime of a sexual nature. Readers are encouraged to use their own discretion when deciding whether to read this article.
A doctor has testified that a sore found on an alleged victim of sexual abuse was not from trauma, making him the second medical expert for the defense to say so during a sexual abuse of a minor trial.
Dr. Stephen Guertin, M.D., the director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Edward W. Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., said the vaginal sore instead looked like recurring dermatitis, which is an inflammation of the skin.
“How can you say that’s from sexual abuse?” Guertin said Tuesday from the witness stand, pointing to a picture of the 8-year-old girl taken during a medical exam.
Guertin observed three sets of photographs of the girl, now 9, who lived in the same household as Joseph Randy Dennis, 27. Dennis was the boyfriend of the girl’s mother, and he is accused of digitally penetrating the girl in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve.
The first set of pictures was from an exam taken the day after the incident allegedly occurred; the second set, 16 days later; and the third set, five months later.
Guertin said the inflammation is visible in the first set of photographs, undergoes an atrophic change in the second set (meaning the skin becomes white and thinner), then flares back up again in the third set of photographs taken in June.
“Seeing it again six months later is a big deal,” Guertin said, adding, “What I see there is dermatitis, not trauma. I don’t see trauma.”
Guertin was asked by Dennis’ attorney, Public Defender Eric Hedland, to do a blind review of the photographs without any knowledge of the case.
A nurse practitioner from Homer, Carol Klamser, was also asked to review the photographs for the defense, and she testified last week the sore was caused by a medical skin condition, such as a possible combination of vaginitis and Lichen sclerosus.
After a week of trial, the state rested its case against Dennis on Monday. Their case largely hinges on testimony from Dr. carolyn Brown, as well as statements from the girl and mother. The Empire is withholding their names.
Brown performed three medical exams on the girl at the Child Advocacy Center in Juneau and concluded “nothing but trauma” could have caused the red, raised area found between the girl’s labia majora and minora.
No DNA was found in the girl’s vaginal area except her own, according to the testimony of the DNA Analyst at the Alaska Crime Lab in Anchorage, Sara Graziano.
No cuts from fingernails were found during the medical exam, according to Brown, despite the fact that Dennis had long fingernails at the time, as shown by police photographs taken of Dennis’ hands.
Dennis adamantly denied any wrongdoing during an interview at the police station, according to the lead investigator of the case, Juneau Police Department Det. Brian Dallas, who testified earlier in the week.
Jurors this week watched video footage of the girl being interviewed by a forensic child interviewer at the CAC, and heard the audio recording of the first police contact with the girl and mother as an officer responded to their 911 phone call at their house on Jan. 1.
The girl tells the CAC interviewer that Dennis had “apparently messed with her privates” while she was sleeping, which the defense has suggested is an inference the girl made based on a later conversation with her mother wherein she complains of an ‘ow-ie.’
The girl said she woke up at night when Dennis was pulling down her pants and underwear. The defense says Dennis was helping her change before he went out for the evening since she fell asleep in blue jeans, was sweaty and was positioned halfway off the bed. He handed her a pair of pajamas after she woke up.
When CAC interview Jennifer Narvaez asked how the girl knew Dennis “messed with her privates,” the girl said because she knew the ow-ie “didn’t get there all by itself” and because she felt him even though she was asleep.
When Narvaez asks the girl was ‘messing’ means, the girl offers to demonstrate on Narvaez’s knee. The girl taps the air above Narvaez’s knee as if she’s typing on a keyboard, using most or all of her fingers with her palms facing down. The defense has characterized that as bizarre, while Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp says the girl is trying to describe a sexual experience that she doesn’t have knowledge of or words for.
Testimony has shown the girl reported having the ‘ow-ie’ to her mother on New Year’s Day and asked her to look at it. The girl also told her that Dennis helped her change into pajamas. When the mother inspected the area, she saw the redness and called 911.
A continuing point of contention throughout the trial is whether the girl reported to her mother in that conversation that Dennis had “messed with her privates,” or whether the mother suggested that to the girl after assuming the worst when her daughter told her Dennis helped her change into her pajamas.
The mother was recalled to the stand on Tuesday by the defense and insisted she did not make that suggestion, but that her daughter came up with that by herself.
Hedland impeached the mother when the mother testified her daughter was in excruciating pain and jumping off the table during her first medical exam. Brown specifically testified last week that wasn’t the case. The mom also testified Tuesday Brown told her during the first exam that the redness found on her daughter was a “friction burn.” Brown said last week that wasn’t true, and she never told the mother that.
Hedland also showed the jury text messages the mother sent to Dennis’ sister after the initial medical exam. The mother told the sister via text that Dennis ejaculated in the girl’s vagina and that the girl had bruising in her vagina from his hands “bashing” into her, neither of which is an allegation in this case.
The defense made a motion for acquittal after the state rested its case on Monday, citing insufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to find Dennis guilty. The state rebutted that both the girl and mother made incriminating statements, and the state’s theory puts Dennis in the room at the time.
Judge Philip Pallenberg, who is presiding over the trial, denied the motion. Pallenberg said the case will likely go to the jurors on Wednesday after closing arguments are made.
Dennis is on trial for two counts of sexual abuse of a minor. Those are unclassified felonies that can carry up to 99 years in prison.
If convicted, Dennis would likely face a presumptive sentencing range of 25 to 35 years in prison for each count.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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