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Judge Orders Return of Videotapes to Doctor Arrested on Molestation Charges

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Monday ordered the return of about a dozen videotapes seized from the office of Newport Beach neurosurgeon Francis J. Williams, a move that dampens prosecutors’ hopes of bringing new sexual-molestation charges against the doctor.

Judge David O. Carter ruled that the privacy of the filmed patients far outweighed any value that the tapes may have held for prosecutors as evidence against Williams. He ordered that the tapes, which had been kept under court seal, be returned to the doctor--perhaps as early as today.

Orange County prosecutors conceded that the decision hurts their case, but they said they will continue to investigate the case against the 64-year-old Williams.

Williams, arrested in November, was charged with having molested several female patients. Last month, however, a municipal court judge threw out those charges for lack of evidence, citing credibility problems with a teen-ager who testified against Williams.

Concern for Patient Privacy

But prosecutors subsequently have said that about a dozen key videotapes of Williams’ office examinations--unavailable to them at the time of his preliminary hearing--would help prove their case. These tapes were among about 400 that were seized when a search warrant was served at Williams’ office in November but later returned to him.

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Ironically, Williams videotaped his office sessions as a way of protecting himself from liability in the event he was sued by a patient, his attorneys said.

Williams fought the release of the tapes sought by prosecutors--not out of fear of what they would show, his lawyers said, but rather out of concern for the privacy of his patients.

“Those tapes don’t reveal anything incriminating,” defense attorney Marshall Schulman said. “It’s the principle involved.”

Judge Carter agreed. After reviewing the tapes with attorneys several weeks ago, Carter indicated in his ruling Monday that the tapes did not appear damaging to Williams and seemed of little or no value to prosecutors.

Moreover, the judge said, release of the tapes clearly would compromise the privacy of patients who may not have any connection to the district attorney’s ongoing investigation into Williams’ practice.

“I don’t even think that’s a close decision,” Carter said.

Williams could not be reached for comment after Monday’s decision.

Defense attorney Schulman, in an interview, applauded Carter’s decision to protect the privacy of Williams’ patients. But he said prosecutors may again bring charges against the doctor. “They’re desperate, and nothing they do surprises me anymore,” he said.

In court, Schulman had attacked prosecutors for acting in “bad faith” to pursue a baseless case against Williams and suggested that he might bring civil defamation charges against members of the district attorney’s office for their out-of-court comments.

Of more than a dozen tapes prosecutors had sought, they managed to persuade Carter to release only one, which showed a 1985 office visit by a 12-year-old girl whose testimony against Williams at his preliminary hearing was largely discounted by a municipal judge. And even in that case, defense attorneys insisted that the tape showed nothing incriminating and that prosecutors already had access to it.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Kelly MacEachern, who prosecuted Williams at his preliminary hearing, said Carter’s decision hurts her case, perhaps irreparably. She estimated the odds of refiling charges against Williams now at “a little better than 50-50.”


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