On June 27, 1987, 44-year-old Teobaldo Guce and his wife, Rosario, brought their 5-year-old daughter to a city health clinic in Queens, New York, for a routine examination before starting school. The examining physician, Dr. Nadine Haddad Sabbagh, concluded that the girl had been raped and sodomized within the prior two weeks.
The girl repeatedly denied having been abused when questioned by Sabbagh. However, Sabbagh reported her findings to authorities. As a result, the girl and her siblings, a 7-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, were placed in foster care by the New York City Human Resources Administration.
Sabbagh later testified that when she interviewed the 5-year-old, “I had her face the fact that I knew what was happening. I told her that I could see, from what I examined, that definitely someone did it more than once.”
Five days after Sabbagh’s examination, a private doctor retained by Guce and his wife examined the children and found no signs of rape or sodomy.
Despite those findings, the girls were interviewed several times by a social worker. Eventually, the 5-year-old implicated her father, saying he had raped her during the night in her bed. The 7-year-old also implicated her father, saying she saw the sexual assault of the 5-year-old.
Guce was charged with rape, sodomy and sexual abuse of the 5-year-old girl and endangering the welfare of the 7-year-old girl. He went on trial in Queens County Supreme Court in October 1987. Both girls testified via live closed circuit television. Both repeated their claims—the 5-year-old that she had been raped and sodomized and the 7-year-old that she saw it happen. Sabbagh testified to finding physical evidence of sexual abuse in the 5-year-old.
The defense presented evidence that another physician had examined both girls and found no evidence of sexual abuse.
In October 1987, a jury convicted Guce of all charges and he was sentenced to 3 to 9 years in prison. In January 1991, after his appeals had been rejected, Guce surrendered to begin serving his sentence.
In February 1991, a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed seeking a new trial. The petition said that both girls had recanted their testimony and said that their father had not sexually assaulted the 5-year-old. The girls’ minister had heard them praying to be allowed to leave foster care and return home and expressing sorrow that they had falsely accused their father. The minister spoke to the girls, who were then 8 and 10, about their prayers and tape recorded them saying they were sorry they lied. At about the same time, the foster parents reported to New York City social workers that the girls told them that they had lied. The petition also cited additional experts who examined the girls and determined that neither had been raped or sodomized.
In November 1991, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman ordered Guce released on bond pending a decision on the habeas petition. In 1992, Korman ordered a hearing to consider evidence on the reliability of the girls’ trial testimony in light of their recantations. The judge said the hearing would also address Guce’s contention that the girls’ statements were the result of lengthy interrogations and suggestive questioning by Sabbagh and by the social services worker.
As a result, the Queens County district attorney’s office re-opened its investigation and interviewed the children again. After finding that the recantations were credible, the prosecution agreed that Guce’s habeas petition should be granted. The petition was granted on September 30, 1992, and on October 21, 1992, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Guce.
By that time, Sabbagh had been implicated in another New York wrongful conviction. In 1989, Amine Baba-Ali
was convicted of raping his 4-year-old daughter based on Sabbagh’s expert testimony. Baba-Ali spent two years in prison before his conviction was overturned. In January 1992, charges against Baba-Ali were dismissed when a medical examination revealed that the girl’s hymen was still intact, contrary to Sabbagh’s testimony.
By 1994, when Guce filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction, Sabbagh had been promoted to medical director of the New York Health Department’s Bureau of Sexually Transmitted Disease Control.
In 1995, Guce settled his lawsuit for $412,500.
– Maurice Possley