Unlike most states and the federal government, Texas grants juries the power to set criminal punishments.
The jury’s sentence and the headlines that accompanied it have caused outrage on social media, with some drawing comparisons to a California judge’s decision to sentence Stanford sex offender Brock Turner to six months in jail. But one of Sheikh’s attorneys, who have argued that the sex between Sheikh and the patient was consensual, defended the jury’s decision.
“The 12 members of the jury who sat there and heard evidence for two solid weeks were in the best position to make that call . . . And when you’re not there and you haven’t heard the evidence, people should not jump to conclusions about facts they didn’t hear,” Lisa Andrews told The Washington Post.
“The facts are not black and white,” the defense attorney added. “The truth is usually a version of gray.”
The incident occurred Nov. 2, 2013, when the woman was a patient at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston. She told authorities that a male doctor came to her room three times that night, raping her during the third visit. The woman, who was attached to machines and was sedated, was unable to fight and tried to call for help, but the nurses’ call button had been unplugged, court records say. She reported the incident the following morning and agreed to a rape-kit test.
The Post does not identify people who are or may have been victims of sexual assault.
DNA tests led investigators to Sheikh two years later, in October 2015. Sheikh, an internal medicine resident who was on call at the hospital at the time of the incident, was seen on surveillance video and logged his badge to go to the floor where the woman’s room was located at least 12 times, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Prosecutors told jurors last week that Sheikh betrayed the woman’s trust and took advantage of her when she was vulnerable, the Chronicle reported. Court records say that she was admitted to the hospital with complaints of shortness of breath and wheezing, and that she suffered serious injuries in the assault.
Sheikh, a doctor at Baylor College of Medicine at the time of the incident, testified that he went to the woman’s room to do a medical check but that she “came on to him” by grabbing his crotch, Andrews said. Sheikh left, came back to the room, and she came on to him again, Andrews said.
“I think he was probably somewhat shocked and confused the first time,” she said. “He came back and she did those things again, and so he reciprocated.”
Andrews said the defense questioned the woman’s credibility during the trial and presented evidence, including phone records showing that she was texting and calling people while she was at the hospital, to try to prove that she was not sedated. Sheikh’s legal team also questioned the woman’s motivation, suspecting that she had intended to file a lawsuit to potentially receive a settlement, according to Andrews.
A lawsuit against Sheikh’s former employer, Baylor College of Medicine, is pending in the state Supreme Court.
“He made a mistake, but he didn’t sexually assault her,” Andrews told jurors during her closing argument, the Chronicle reported. “Here we have this Latina woman with her fake boobs that came on to that little nerdy middle-aged guy and he lost his mind.”
The jury of five women and seven men found Sheikh guilty on Thursday, after 15 hours of deliberation.
At the trial’s sentencing phase the following day, prosecutors asked for the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
“He sought her out. He chose her to prey on,” Assistant District Attorney Lauren Reeder told jurors, according to the Chronicle. “You know he’s the type of man who would go in multiple times, testing the waters, seeing how far he could go and get back to his normal business after that.”
Jurors sided with Sheikh’s attorneys, who argued for a far more lenient sentence and called family and friends to testify about Sheikh’s remorse for violating his Hippocratic oath and his marital vows.
“I have to believe that they probably have some residual doubt about either his guilt or innocence,” Andrews told The Post, adding later: “I believe the jury made the right decision in this particular case based on the facts that they heard.”
Dane Schiller, a spokesman for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, said the office respects the outcome of the case.
“The jury voted on behalf of the community to determine his sentence, and although prosecutors sought prison time, we respect the process, and the jury’s decision, which carries with it a lifetime of registering as a sex offender,” Schiller said in a statement.
The outcome surprised some legal experts, who told the Chronicle that the lenient sentence was unusual, especially for a professional who should be held to a higher standard.
Michele Dauber, a Stanford University law professor who led a campaign to recall California Judge Aaron Persky for sentencing Turner to six months in jail, said it’s “likely” that jurors were persuaded by the defense’s “outrageous racist and victim-blaming arguments.”
Dauber noted Andrews’s argument describing the accuser as a “Latina woman with her fake boobs.”
“That kind of argument is shameful. The legal system has failed to take violence against women seriously, and that is even more true where the victims are from marginalized communities,” Dauber said in an email to The Post. “Sexual assault and harassment impact the ability of women to experience equality in our society and this kind of victim-blaming is a big part of the reason.”
Andrews acknowledged that much of the outrage was because of how vigorously attorneys defended Sheikh.
“But in our system, my job is to zealously represent my client, and that’s what I did,” she said. “We didn’t make up facts.”
Sheikh also worked briefly as an internist at Houston Methodist Hospital, but a spokeswoman said he was hired before the allegations surfaced. Sheikh was suspended and later fired after the hospital learned of the charges against him in 2015.
“There were no reports of misconduct or any incidents involving this doctor while he was at Houston Methodist,” spokeswoman Stefanie Asin said.
The Texas Medical Board has since suspended Sheikh’s license, saying his “continuation in the practice of medicine poses a continuing threat to public welfare.”