(CN) — The trial of James Heaps, a former gynecologist-oncologist for the University of California, Los Angeles, accused sexually abusing his patients, began Tuesday with opening statements by his lawyer and the prosecution.
Heaps is charged with 21 felony counts of sexual misconduct, including nine counts of sexual battery by fraud, stemming from allegations made by seven of his former patients. He has pleaded not guilty.
The seven women had "something in common," said Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers. "They either had an emergency medical procedure, or they were suffering from cancer or the possibility of cancer."
"They were all in fear," Meyers continued. "They were scared. And they went to who they believed to be the best person…that could take care of their medical needs. They trusted the university. They trusted the defendant."
In her opening statement, Meyers said that Heaps engaged in "conduct that was performed for sexual gratification."
"This was one of the worst abuses," Meyers said, "of a fiduciary duty a doctor has to his patients."
All seven of the victims will be known throughout the trial by their first names and last initials. All are expected to testify. And all of them told at least one person about the alleged incident after it happened.
Leonard Levine, Heaps' defense attorney, told the jury that his client's case would rest on two types of evidence: medical records showing that every examination performed by Heaps was medically necessary, as well as testimony from medical assistants, or chaperones, who will say they were in the room when the alleged abuse occurred.
"The medical records will show that every examination had a medical purpose, and the chaperones will testify they saw no acts of sexual gratification," Levine said "No one was masturbating, no one had an erection. Had they seen that, they would have reported it."
Levine suggested that Heaps' accusers had largely misinterpreted his behavior — that these patients were upset at Heaps, or "didn't like his bedside manner," or perhaps thought he asked them inappropriate questions about their sexual history.
"A gynecologist-oncologist, by definition, is going to conduct pelvic examinations," said Levine. "His fingers are going to be in you vaginal area. That is his job. His fingers are there examining — with gloves, the evidence will show."
Heaps was once among the highest paid physicians in the UC system, having treated thousands of patients during his 35 years at UCLA. The university has paid out nearly $700 million to settle civil claims made by hundreds of women who accused Heaps of sexual assaulting them during medical examinations, and of scheduling unnecessary appointments and procedures for financial gain. The sum is believed to be the largest payout by a public university over sexual abuse accusations — more than the University of Michigan paid to settle claims of abuse by physician Larry Nassar, though considerably less than the $1.1 billion paid out by the private University of Southern California to settle claims of abuse by its gynecologist George Tyndall.
Tyndall is also being represented by Leonard Levine, one of the country's most prominent defense attorneys for sex crime cases.
If convicted of all charges, Heaps faces more than 67 years in prison. The trial is expected to last at least five weeks.
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