Aaron Porter

Aaron Porter

Montana Department of Corrections

In a ruling upholding the conviction of a Belgrade man found guilty of nearly choking his girlfriend to death, the Montana Supreme Court found that information his victim told a Bozeman emergency room doctor was admissible at his trial.

Last week, the state’s high court affirmed the conviction of Aaron Antonio Porter, who a jury found guilty of felony aggravated assault following a trial in 2015. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence in the Montana State Prison.

In Porter’s appeal, he asked for the conviction to be reversed and for a new trial, arguing that Gallatin County District Court Judge John Brown erred when he allowed the testimony of Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital emergency room Dr. Tiffany Kuehl in Porter’s trial.

Porter was arrested in August 2014 when his girlfriend went to work in Belgrade with a black eye and bruises on her neck, face and arms. Her supervisor called the police to report that she had been assaulted.

Belgrade Police Officer Jesse Stovall responded and spoke with the woman, who identified Porter as her attacker. Stovall then took the woman to the ER. She signed a release authorizing the hospital to give her health information to police as part of their investigation.

At the hospital, the woman was examined by Kuehl, who is also the medical director of the hospital’s sexual assault nurse examiner team.

The exam showed that the woman had bruises and abrasions all over her body, with injuries on her neck and face indicative of strangulation. She also had a suspected rib fracture and a concussion.

As part of the exam, Kuehl testified that she takes a “verbal history” from patients to better understand injuries as well as to assess their safety and need for further treatment. In apparent domestic violence cases, “it is my job to ensure the safety of all my patients,” Kuehl said.

In this case, the woman said she was thrown against a wall and strangled twice by her domestic partner, although she did not identify Porter by name.

During the first strangulation, the woman told Kuehl that she was lifted off the ground by her throat and that during the second, she was strangled to the point of unconsciousness. She reported that she felt like she was going to die.

The victim did not testify at Porter’s trial. Gallatin County Deputy Attorney Bjorn Boyer, who prosecuted the case, called four witnesses to the stand, including Kuehl.

At the trial, Porter’s defense tried to keep jurors from hearing Kuehl’s “verbal history” testimony, but Judge Brown allowed it.

In Porter’s appeal, his attorney argued that the woman’s statements in the emergency room were testimonial because she had a “clear reason” to believe they would be used in court as evidence against Porter. And Porter’s constitutional rights were violated when the judge admitted those statements because Porter didn’t have a prior opportunity to cross-examine the woman.

Sexual assault nurse examiners essentially act as government agents when they carry out investigative duties as part of a formal law enforcement investigation, Porter argued.

The testimony was also hearsay, Porter’s defense argued. While Montana’s rules of evidence don’t allow hearsay as evidence, there are exceptions that include statements made for medical diagnosis or treatment. Porter said Kuehl’s testimony was not “reasonably pertinent” to diagnosis or treatment.

The Montana Attorney General’s argued that the woman’s statements weren’t testimonial, but rather used to receive medical treatment for her injuries and admissible as evidence.

Justices sided with the state, saying Kuehl’s primary purpose was not to create an out-of-court substitute for trial testimony. Kuehl is not a law enforcement officer, the interview took place in the ER and not a police station, they noted.

“Dr. Kuehl’s role as a medical provider logically extended beyond treating cuts and bruises,” Justice Beth Baker wrote in the court’s opinion.

Justices noted that the medical community recognizes intimate partner violence as a public health problem.

“Medical studies have demonstrated the significant health consequences of (domestic violence) beyond the physical injuries immediately presenting to the medical provider,” the opinion said.

Women who are victims of domestic violence have increased risk of chronic pain and other disorders, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart and cardiovascular disease.

Victims often have partners who prevented them from going to the doctor and otherwise interfered with health care, the opinion noted.

And victims increasingly use the health care system, visiting the emergency room as well as using other services for mental health and substance abuse, leading to increased medical costs.

”Thus, intervention by a medical provider can help reduce the risk of additional violent attacks, the need for future medical care and health care costs,” the opinion said.

Justices Mike McGrath, James Shea and Jim Rice concurred with the opinion.

Justices Dirk Sandefur and Laurie McKinnon, in a specially concurring opinion, agreed that in this case Kuehl was “first and foremost” collecting information from the victim to provide her medical care and that the doctor’s testimony was admissible.

But generally, Sandefur wrote that, regardless of the medical community’s recognition that intimate partner violence is a public health issue, he didn’t agree that medical treatment that included identifying an abuser and facilitating a post-release safety plan for a patient was necessarily medical treatment.

“I certainly agree that those purposes are manifestly compelling public safety and social justice purposes. However, protecting an abused patient from her abuser after she leaves the hospital and gathering evidence to facilitate his criminal prosecution by the State do not constitute ‘medical treatment’...” Sandefur wrote.

Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

Whitney Bermes covers cops and courts for the Chronicle.

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