Iowa Man Accused of Raping Wife With Alzheimer's Is Acquitted

The case offered a rare look at a complex dilemma that will become more common as the 65-and-over population expands

Henry Rayhons

Henry Rayhons

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

An Iowa jury found 78-year-old Henry V. Rayhons not guilty of raping his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. 

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about two days before finding Rayhons did not sexually assault his wife, Donna Lou, in her room at a Garner (Iowa) nursing home on May 23, 2014. 

Rayhons, a retired farmer and former state legislator, embraced his family and broke down in tears after Judge Gregg Rosenbladt read the verdict. 

“The truth finally came out," Rayhons said shortly after the verdict was returned, the Des Moines Register reported. He said his late wife, who died last year, was with him throughout the trial.

Rayhons’s son Dale Rayhons said in a phone interview, “It’s fantastic. We’re just so ecstatic.” He said his family was told earlier this afternoon that the jury had reached a stalemate but the judge said deliberations would continue. 

Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, said, “Our office prosecuted this case based on a complaint, thorough law enforcement investigation, and Iowa law. The jury made its decision, which we respect.” 

The case has gotten global attention because it's believed to be the first in which a jury has considered when a person with dementia loses the mental ability to consent to sex. It's a dilemma that's likely to become more common as the 65-and-over population of the U.S. expands and the number of people with dementia increases. The case has offered a rare look into a complex and thinly explored dilemma, first detailed by Bloomberg News

The jury made no comment about the verdict, so it’s not known what it determined about Donna’s capacity to consent. 

Rayhons was arrested Aug. 15, one week after Donna, also 78, died of complications from Alzheimer’s. Prosecutors said Rayhons had sexual intercourse with Donna inside Room 12 North of the Concord Care Center last May. 

Rayhons denied ever having intercourse with Donna in the nursing home. When he was arrested, state prosecutors had no DNA evidence of rape and were relying partly on Rayhons’s allegedly telling a state investigator that he had had intercourse with Donna on the night in question. 

Rayhons's attorney, Joel Yunek, cautioned jurors in his closing arguments on Monday that their decision would be "debated, discussed, followed for years." A guilty verdict, he said, could make marital partners fearful of visiting a spouse because of the possibility of being prosecuted. 

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Susan Krisko discounted such concerns in her closing argument, telling jurors they needed to decide only whether a crime occurred. "This is not you saying every Alzheimer's patient is going to be governed by this set of rules," the Des Moines Register reported her saying.  

“This case is a reminder that it is important that we have nursing homes as safe places for people who cannot protect themselves,” said Katherine C. Pearson, who teaches and writes about elder law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and who followed the Rayhons case. “But we also need to consider with this case whether nursing homes need to be a trap for the resident’s spouse, where even the most basic interactions in life, with loved ones, are subject to strict limits. Now it is probably up to policymakers and the public to decide how to avoid even the possibility of another such case.” 

Rayhons was a widower for less than a year, and Donna a widow for six years, when they began to flirt while singing in a Catholic church choir in 2007. They married that December. Both their families embraced the union, and they appear to have had a loving courtship and marriage. 

On May 15 of last year, the daughters met with Rayhons and nursing home staffers to discuss Donna’s care. They handed him a one-page document on which a local physician had written that Donna no longer had the mental capacity to consent to sex. “That’s not a problem,” Rayhons said on an audiotape of the meeting. The discussion of the topic lasted about one minute and the word “sex” was not uttered. 

The alleged assault occurred eight days later. After Rayhons visited Donna in her room that evening, her roommate told nursing home staffers she had heard “sexual” sounds, although she saw nothing and later changed her statement to say she heard only whispering. 

Prosecutors said Rayhons later admitted to a state investigator that he had  had intercourse with Donna. On the witness stand, an emotional Rayhons said he told the investigator things that were untrue because the investigator had upset him. “He had me completely out of my brain after he shouted at me," Rayhons testified. 

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