In a key decision in the prosecution of Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley, video evidence police say shows Bradley sexually assaulting young patients will not be thrown out.
In an April 13 ruling, New Castle County Superior Court Judge William C. Carpenter ruled video evidence found by police during their search of Bradley's offices is admissible in court.
In his ruling, Carpenter said while police committed fundamental errors, “The fact remains that the police were given authority to conduct a search for patient files, and the fact that they hoped or suspected that evidence of other criminal activity would be discovered when the search was executed is immaterial, as long as their conduct can be justified under the warrant or by other legal basis.”
Bradley’s defense team – Dean Johnson and Stephanie Tsantes of the Public Defender’s Office – wanted the video evidence thrown out because, they said, Delaware State Police exceeded the authority granted them by a Dec. 15, 2009 search warrant for Bradley’s BayBees Pediatrics office.
In a two-day hearing on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, Johnson and Tsantes argued that the police were looking for patient files and records on eight specific children, not for evidence of child pornography, which they found.
The defense said the police searched buildings and seized evidence not specified in the search warrant.
The warrant called for a search of the main, two-story office building and a white outbuilding on the property. The state police arrested Bradley at his Lewes house on the morning of Dec. 16, 2009 and brought him to his office before executing the search warrant.
It was only after they arrived at the offices that officers noticed there were four buildings on the property, instead of the two specified in the warrant. At the evidence suppression hearing, lead Det. Thomas Elliott said he saw only two buildings when he drove by the facility on Dec. 14 in preparation for developing the search warrant. Elliott testified that he did not step on the property until the search warrant was executed.
After calling a deputy attorney general for a legal opinion, and debating amongst themselves, the detectives decided to search all the buildings on the property. The deputy attorney general, unnamed in the opinion, was en route to the scene when the detectives started their search.
During their search, the police found the medical files they were looking for but also found a treasure trove of computers, cameras, computer storage devices and digital media files in Bradley’s offices, including a digital video camera in an exam room and another camera in a file cabinet in the basement, where Bradley often took children for candy.
The police seized the computer evidence on the premise Bradley may have stored patient files there. Upon viewing one of the files, Det. James Spillan saw video of Bradley removing the diaper of a young patient. Spillan stopped the video and asked for a new search warrant seeking evidence of child pornography and exploitation.
Carpenter agreed with the defense, but said the detectives would have found this evidence anyway.
In his opinion, Carpenter said the detectives should have waited for a deputy attorney general to arrive to verify whether they could proceed with searching all the buildings. Carpenter said there was no urgency to perform the search, since Bradley was already in police custody, ensuring that Bradley could not destroy records.
Carpenter said the detectives’ second mistake was not verifying the number of buildings on the BayBees property.
“Dr. Bradley’s office is adjacent to a very busy highway, and even a marked patrol car pulling into the lot to do paperwork would not have aroused suspicion. In additon, this is a commercial property which is open to the public and in particular, to the patients of Dr. Bradley. Therefore, a car driving into the lot during business hours would have caused no concern,” Carpenter wrote.
The judge said the officers should have secured the premises until an attorney could provide legal guidance or another search warrant could be obtained.
The defense argued that the warrant did not set forth how the patient files would be relevant to the crimes the police were investigating – child sexual abuse – and does not provide a sufficient basis to justify their seizure.
Carpenter agreed police could have easily asserted patient files would assist investigators in determining whether Bradley’s alleged conduct had any relationship to treating patients. That, however, is not fatal to the viability of the warrant, Carpenter said.
The defense questioned the search that found the computer file showing Bradley removing a child’s diaper. The defense argued that the search for this file did not fit the parameters set out in the Dec. 15 warrant.
Carpenter said, “The affidavit set forth information received from other physicians and office staff that it was not uncommon for Dr. Bradley to videotape of photograph his patients. The defendant does not operate a photography studio, and even if the conduct was done for fun or entertainment, it occurred in relation to a patient’s visit for medical treatment.”
Carpenter added that once the file, obtained from the checkerboard-painted white outbuilding, was opened, police would have had probable cause to seek an additional warrant to search the rest of the buildings on the property.
Delaware State Police first asked for a search warrant for Bradley’s office in 2008, seeking evidence of child pornography but a judge denied the warrant. State police continued their investigation until December 2009, when detectives received evidence of improper conduct by Bradley during an office visit.
A second search warrant was sought, with this warrant focusing on patient files and video and photographs of Bradley’s offices.
The Bradley trial is sure to be one the most high-profile trials ever seen in Delaware, rivaling the Thomas Capano trial in 1998. The judge at the Capano trial was Judge Bill Lee, who has been following the Bradley case and is the chairman of the board of Beebe Medical Center.
Lee said Carpenter’s ruling serves the interest of justice, ensuring all the evidence will be heard at a trial. He said the ruling deals a serious blow to the defense, which will now have to come up with a new line of attack.
The defense could use Bradley’s mental state as a potential defense. A plea arrangement could also be in the cards, but Lee said with charges of this magnitude, and with photographic evidence of the alleged crimes in play, “The defense is in a tough spot.”
The one thing Bradley’s defense team has to bargain with, Lee said, is that it knows the state does not want a trial, where videos of Bradley’s alleged sexual assaults could be shown and victims – children and parents – could be put on the witness stand. To introduce the video evidence, Lee said, the state will have to show the judge how they got the evidence and the validity of the evidence.
Lee said it is up to Bradley himself whether the case goes to trial, where he would face life imprisonment if convicted of charges of rape and child exploitation of more than 100 children. Even if Bradley goes to trial and is convicted, the case could go to the Delaware Supreme Court for judicial review, Lee said.
Attorney General Joseph “Beau” Biden III would not comment on the case, citing a strict gag order imposed on both sides by Carpenter, but he did say the prosecution team – Paula Ryan, David Hume and Alexis Gatti – would remain the same although the case was moved from Sussex to New Castle County.
Bradley’s trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday, June 1, in the New Castle County Superior Court.