A Houston jury Thursday convicted a former Baylor College of Medicine physician of raping a woman who had been hospitalized at Ben Taub Hospital for an acute asthma attack in 2013.
The jury of five women and seven men reached its verdict after about 15 hours of deliberation over two days. The defense team admitted the doctor had sex with a patient but said it was consensual.
The woman reported the rape to Ben Taub staff, saying an unknown physician came to her bedside three times in the dark, sexually assaulting her while she was tethered to machines. The call button she repeatedly pressed to summon a nurse was unplugged.
But it took investigators two years to identify Dr. Shafeeq Sheikh as the suspected attacker, based on DNA from her rape kit. Sheikh, an internal medicine resident on call at Ben Taub, was spotted on surveillance video and logged swiping his badge to enter her floor at least 12 times, even though she wasn’t assigned as his patient.
In court this week, the 32-year-old woman testified that the attack upended her life and precipitated the end of her marriage. She was identified as Laura in a series of Houston Chronicle columns by Lisa Falkenberg about the incident. The Chronicle does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Sheikh, now 46, lost his job, and the Texas Medical Board revoked his license in 2015, finding that he posed “a continuing threat to public welfare.” In 2016, a Harris County civil court cleared Ben Taub and Baylor of liability in a lawsuit the patient brought.
Prosecutors this week told jurors the doctor betrayed the woman’s trust when she was at her most vulnerable. Caregivers rushed to her room for several acute medical episodes and she was was unable to fight off the doctor’s assault, they said.
A lawyer defending Sheikh picked at inconsistencies in the woman’s account and vigorously questioned her credibility, asking about her career as an actress and model, and whether she agreed she had posted sexually suggestive photos and videos on social media.
Records showed her cellphone transmitted many texts and logged lengthy phone calls during her stay at the hospital, which indicated she was alert. DNA indicated she had sexual relations with her husband her first night at the hospital, which meant she couldn’t have been incapacitated, the defense said.
Their client violated medical ethics, the lawyers said, but placed the blame on the patient for allegedly seducing him to make her husband jealous and cash in on a lawsuit.
Sheikh, a father of four who emigrated from India, told jurors the patient led him on. He said she took his hand to her breasts when he was performing a chest exam. He returned later, allured by her breast implants, and she touched his genitals, he said. She then shifted onto one side and pushed her buttocks to the edge of the gurney, signaling that she wanted more, he said.
After he completed a sex act with her, without a condom, he testified, “It immediately sunk in that something terrible had happened, and I was scared for myself. You’re not supposed to have sex with a patient. That’s part of medical ethics.”
When he realized she had reported the incident as an assault, Sheikh said, he began checking her chart hourly. He did not come forward because he was terrified of the consequences of an obvious breach of ethics.
Baylor College of Medicine declined to comment.
But Bryan McLeod, a spokesman for the county health system that operates Ben Taub Hospital, said, “Harris Health System has been supportive of the legal process and has fully cooperated throughout the investigation and trial phase of this case.”’
“We care deeply about the safety and well-being of our patients,” he said.
Late Thursday, the jury began hearing evidence for the punishment phase of the trial. Final arguments are expected Friday.
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The jury five women and seven men sentenced Dr. Shafeeq Sheikh, a former Baylor College of Medicine resident, to 10 years on probation for raping the patient while she was tethered to machines and receiving treatment for an acute asthma attack.
The jurors found Sheikh guilty Thursday after deliberating for 14 hours over two days. The conviction means Sheikh, 46, must be a registered for the rest of his life as a sex offender. Jurors recommended the 10-year probated sentence for the doctor and suspension of a $10,000 fine after deliberations on Friday, recommendations that visiting Senior District Judge Terry L. Flenniken was required by law to follow.
During argument for the sentencing phase of the trial Friday, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Reeder asked jurors to keep in mind that Sheikh exploited his access to harm a vulnerable person.
“He sought her out. He chose her to prey on,” Reeder said, noting that Sheikh checked the woman’s chart and knew exactly what medicines she had been prescribed. “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.”
The prosecutor said she hoped the jury would also consider the fact that after the assault, Sheikh went on to get another job and practiced medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital until the time police arrested him.
“You know he’s the kind man of who walked around for two years before he was charged with this… knowing what he did,” the prosecutor said.
It took investigators two years to charge Sheikh in the 2013 assault. He was only then, in 2015, that the Texas Medical Board revoked his license, finding that he posed “a continuing threat to public welfare.”
The woman, who was identified previously in a series of Houston Chronicle columns by Lisa Falkenberg as Laura, reported an assault by an unknown doctor the same day. Sheikh told jurors he checked her chart several times that day after he heard she had told officials it was a rape. He said he told his wife about his infidelity right away but he didn’t come forward to hospital officials because he panicked about the consequences.
Police eventually got a list of every man on the premises that night and began collecting cheek swabs of willing subjects. Sheikh only provided one when he was subpoenaed, according to a law enforcement source. DNA evidence from the woman’s rape kit implicated Sheikh as a likely suspect. Sheikh had been working a night shift as an internal medicine resident. He was seen on surveillance video on the woman’s floor and his badge was used to swipe onto her floor that night at least 12 times.
Sonia Corrales, chief program officer at the Houston Area Women’s Center, was unfamiliar with the case but said there should be equity in sentencing violent offenders.
“Oftentimes, perpetrators will attempt to minimize the severity of their actions by claiming it wasn’t sexual assault, but was consensual sex,” she said. “Sexual violence is a willful choice a perpetrator makes to harm another human being and should be addressed by the criminal justice system with the same severity as any other violent crime.”
After the sentencing, the victim said through a former attorney that she had no comment on the punishment and wanted to put it all behind her and move on.
In an interview with KHOU-TV, Laura said she believes there are other victims.
“Of course, yes, and the reason I think so is because this person had everything very organized,” she told the Houston TV station. “I’m not only Laura; I represent lots of women, women who’ve been raped and mistreated.”