CEDAR CITY – Defense attorneys representing a Cedar City midwife headed to trial in October for manslaughter charges may be limited in how they can cross-examine police involved in the case.
Prosecutors in the Iron County Attorney’s Office asked 5th District Judge James L. Shumate Tuesday to establish boundaries in Vickie Dawn Sorensen’s case on what defense attorneys can question police about during the trial.
Sorensen, 56, is charged with second-degree felony manslaughter in the 2012 death of a premature twin infant. She is also accused of reckless endangerment, both class A misdemeanors.
The charges, filed May 3, 2014, stem from the 2012 incident where Sorensen allegedly declined to take a laboring mother, 7 to 8 weeks early and hemorrhaging, to the hospital.
At issue is a search of the defendant’s property in 2013 conducted by police who were looking for clandestine graves. The search was in response to allegations the midwife had buried infants’ remains in her backyard.
Court records show during the search, police used a helicopter to find footprints in fresh snow leading to an area of disturbed ground with vegetation growing above it. Forensic anthropologists on scene told police it was signs of a burial site, records state. Cadaver dogs were used but no graves were ever found, authorities said.
Now prosecutors don’t want Sorensen’s attorneys to be able to question Cedar City Police Detective Mike Bleak about the search.
Deputy county attorney Tyler Romeril filed a Motion-in-Limine asking the court to issue a pretrial order excluding the search in this case. Sorensen’s two-week trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 17.
In his motion, Romeril argues that the fact investigators did not turn up any evidence against Sorensen in their search is irrelevant in this case. The defense will also use the search to “muddy the waters,” Romeril said.
In a separate interview with Cedar City News after the hearing, County Attorney Scott Garrett said questions regarding the search could potentially bring in information to the trial that are not now part of the case. More specifically, he said, if the search is admitted to the trial, additional victims and evidence allegedly found during the two-year police investigation could surface.
“The defense wants to use it to suggest we didn’t find anything when that’s not true – we did. We had this other evidence that we found but decided this case was what we were going to file on. Our position is that it’s just not relevant to the facts upon which we are relying on,” Garrett said. “There were several other instances that we were investigating as well. So if they’re going to make the argument we didn’t find anything in our investigations, well we found a whole bunch of things of which we didn’t file on, and one that we did file on.”
Bringing up the search during trial may not only open Pandora’s Box but could also potentially hurt the defendant, he said.
“It could be bad for her (Sorensen) too because if we brought in all this other stuff of questionable cases that have happened it could be more prejudicial to her than helpful. It could cause some real problems for the case,” Garrett said.
Romeril argues in his motion, that none of that information was used to charge Sorensen with the present charges.
“At no time was the information from the victims in this case used to obtain the search warrant for the other unrelated matters,” Romeril stated in the motion.
Defense attorney Douglas Terry argued he is trying to keep a level playing field in the courtroom.
“I’m just trying to keep this an even playing field. I have an obligation to try and keep this a fair trial, a fair fight. And I have to error on the side of, and I think the court has to error on the side, of due process, equal protection and fundamental fairness,” Terry said. “I’ve looked at this in terms of, under the rules of evidence, and I’ve said to myself, ‘had they found something would Mr. Romeril be trying to bring that in?’ And he absolutely would. And would I be fighting tooth and nail to keep that out? I absolutely would.”
Terry also stated he believed the case was relevant in that the police found nothing during their search.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Shumate chose to wait and rule on the matter during trial.
“I think the best thing I can do is simply withhold the ruling until we have the testimony in front of us,” Shumate said. “I know it’s not very satisfying for anybody but in the interest of this open playing field and blank surface we should all be working on I don’t know that I can do anything else. I can’t just, with a broad brush, paint out Mr. Terry’s persuasive argument that a careful investigation by the state of Utah brought up no relevant evidence.”
Shumate’s choice was made to give himself an opportunity to evaluate the line of questioning the attorneys will take during the trial.
“I will have to focus very carefully as the testimony comes out and to see how questions and answers are responded to during the course of the trial,” Shumate said. “And then, without prejudice, in front of the jury allow you to raise this once again if we cross that fine line.”
Shumate said he would allow the issue to be raised again, if necessary, outside of the presence of the jury.
Following court, Terry said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“I think that was the appropriate ruling. Evidentiary issues can be so dynamic and so dependent on what evidence is actually introduced into trial,” Terry said. “I think that was absolutely an appropriate ruling to see what’s going to shake out during trial.”
Terry said he believes the search is relevant to the case and that if things were reversed the state would argue to allow the search into evidence.
“It’s no different than if this was a drug case and she was accused of possessing drugs and they executed a search warrant for her home and they find no drugs,” Terry said. “That’s relevant evidence. If they find drugs in your home they want to introduce evidence that they found drugs and if they don’t find drugs in your home then I want to introduce evidence that they don’t find drugs. And it’s the same thing here.”
According to charging documents in the case, Sorensen lacked the proper equipment or skills to help the twin baby who was allegedly having trouble breathing.
The second child, the victim’s twin, survived after being delivered by cesarean section at then Valley View Medical Center.
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