Moments before his sexual-assault trial, a former Sitka doctor takes a plea deal

two men
Richard McGrath surrenders into the custody of Sitka police officer Dave Nelson, after pleading guilty to third-degree sexual assault on Monday, March 6, 2023. (Robert Woolsey/KCAWA)

A former Sitka doctor accused of multiple counts of sexual assault four years ago is now behind bars.

On the first day of what was expected to be a lengthy trial, 79-year old Richard McGrath made a surprise plea deal, and will spend the next two years in prison. 

Please note that some graphic detail in this story may be inappropriate for some listeners.

Dr. Richard McGrath has nearly come to trial twice. His first court date in 2020 was postponed because of the COVID pandemic. His second, last July, was declared a mistrial when the court failed to empanel a full jury.

But McGrath’s four-year journey to justice ended the morning of Monday, March 6, a few minutes before jury selection was to begin for a third attempt at a trial. Judge Michael McConahy put the question to McGrath.

“So, to the charge of sexual assault in the third degree, as I read to you, what is your plea?” McConahy asked.

“Guilty, Your Honor,” McGrath responded.

Two of McGrath’s three victims were in the courtroom for the hearing, and they visibly reacted to his admission of guilt. Over the weekend, two of them had consented to a hastily-crafted deal that – if the judge agreed – would see McGrath sentenced to 17 years in prison, with 15 suspended, and permanently lose his medical license.

A third victim did not think that was sufficient. A relative, Jessica Hames, spoke on the victim’s behalf.

“Mr. McGrath was hired into a position of trust and power as a doctor by the city of Sitka,” said Hames, reading from a statement. “He abused that power and violated the sacred trust between doctor and patient. I do not care how old and feeble Dr. McGrath is, or pretending to be, at this moment. He is a dangerous, sick predator who caused irreparable damage to these women. I would like to ask every man in this courtroom including you, Your Honor: How you would like this to be handled if it were you who had been violated?”

Bailey Woolfstead, with the state’s Office of Special Prosecutions, explained some of her rationale for the deal: She had received medical records which indicated that the 79-year old defendant  was in a state of “mental decline,” that would create issues of competency in the event his case went to appeal. She said that the protracted delay had been exceptionally hard on the victims, and while there was never any certainty of winning a conviction in front of a jury, she had little doubt that she could prove some of the charges.

“I’m imagining we’re having at least one woman on a jury,” Woolfstead said, “and based on those experiences and how doctors regularly perform or exam: For example, going to perform a breast exam, they’re going to tell you they’re doing it. And it’s certainly not going to involve things like squeezing someone’s nipple, or taking your breast out of your bra and shirt without telling you what’s going and what’s happening.”

Regardless of the outcome of a possible jury trial on criminal charges, McGrath still faces a civil lawsuit brought by the victims , in a trial scheduled for this July. Woolfstead said that the plea deal would bring finality to this aspect of a complicated case, and perhaps – most importantly – put McGrath behind bars.

“Dr. McGrath going to jail this morning,” Woolfstead said. “As the court knows, there’s a statutory requirement that if he pleads guilty to a sex crime, he is going to jail today.”

McGrath’s attorney, John Cashion, did not offer any counterargument in the proceedings, telling Judge McConahy that he intended to argue mitigating factors at his client’s sentencing hearing on June 12.

In the meantime, “I’ll certainly be asking the court to honor the plea agreement,” he said.

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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