Appeals focus on psychiatric exams

The appeals of two convicted sex offenders were heard by a panel of Nevada Supreme Court justices Wednesday in Las Vegas, with defense attorneys in both cases arguing the district judges who tried their clients should have compelled the victims to undergo psychiatric evaluations.

David J. Tiffany pleaded guilty to 10 counts of child molestation and related charges and in January 2007 received multiple life sentences with the possibility of parole.

Peter J. Pirtle was convicted of 11 counts of sexual assault and other charges at the conclusion of his trial in March 2008. Pirtle received multiple life sentences.

Both men will be subject to lifetime supervision upon leaving prison.

In Tiffany’s case, defense attorney Sandra Stewart noted her client had entered a guilty plea but maintains his innocence to this day. Her key argument focused on District Judge Doug Smith’s decision not to provide funding for an investigator and his refusal to order a psychiatric evaluation for one of the victims.

Stewart said Smith balked at the request, saying the "cottage industry" of investigators for criminal cases was too expensive.

Justice Nancy Saitta said an "extraordinary" reason to hire an investigator must be provided. Stewart, who was not Tiffany’s attorney during his trial, said the veracity of two of the victims was in question, thus meeting the requirement.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Eric G. Jorgenson argued the defense attorney failed to offer a compelling need for the psychiatric evaluations.

In the Pirtle case, defense attorney Thomas Ericsson argued the credibility of one of three young victims was in question because his testimony changed substantially over the course of court hearings.

Ericsson said the sex abuse charges were unfounded and were the result of a "brewing" custody dispute between the defendant and his former wife.

During Pirtle’s trial, Ericsson said, District Judge Kathy Hardcastle limited the testimony of an expert witness called to explain how children form memories and how certain studies show how false allegations are often made in custody disputes.

Deputy District Attorney Summer Clarke said the only testimony alleging a custody fight came from the defendant. She said even if Hardcastle did err, it would not have changed the verdict because the evidence was nearly overwhelming.

Clarke added that testimony at trial revealed the three victims never discussed the abuse among themselves, a fact she said means the victims’ corroborated each other’s statements.

The justices must decide two issues: Did either trial judge abuse his or her discretion, and if so, was the error egregious enough to grant either defendant a new trial.

The justices will consider the arguments made Wednesday and are expected to issue a written opinion in the coming months.

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@ or 702-380-8135.

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