The Indianapolis fertility doctor accused of lying to officials about whether he artificially inseminated patients with his own sperm pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts of obstruction of justice but will receive no jail time.
Dr. Donald Cline, 79, was sentenced to a suspended one-year sentence by Marion Superior Court Judge Helen Marchal. The doctor has been genetically linked to at least two of the children born decades ago to women in his care.
Cline pleaded guilty to charges of lying to two investigators with the state attorney general’s office, who were looking into a consumer complaint that the doctor rather than an anonymous individual acted as a sperm donor without the patients' knowledge.
In a statement before his sentencing, Cline expressed remorse for his actions and apologized to his family and “those who feel deceived and hurt by his actions.”
Saying that he acted alone, he tried to explain why he denied the charges in his response to the investigators when contacted by them in January 2016. In May of the following year, he met with two of the women born to former patients and admitted to them he was their father.
“I was scared….I was foolish in my actions and I should not have lied,” ” he said. “I am asking for mercy and compassion for myself.”
Several of Cline's former patients and their children crowded the courtroom for the final chapter in a story that began three years ago when a handful of them discovered through genetic testing that they were related as half siblings.
Their suspicions grew because Cline had routinely told patients the same sperm donor would be used no more than three times. When online genetic testing services linked them to a relative of Cline’s, they realized that he was their likely biological father.
Without a state law prohibiting a doctor from inseminating patients with his own sperm, those affected had little recourse other than to file a consumer complaint. During the investigation of that complaint, Cline lied, triggering the criminal case against him.
After Thursday’s sentencing, many of the patients and their families said they were hoping for a stronger sentence that included some jail time.
“There were many of us out here that he ruined our lives,” said Dianna Kiesler, a former patient who until recently thought that she had been impregnated by her husband’s sperm when she conceived her now adult daughter.
At several times during Thursday’s hearing, Cline’s attorney, Tracy Betz with Taft Stettinius & Hollister reminded the court, however, that her client was only on trial for lying to investigators, not for anything he did in his medical office decades ago.
“What happened 30 years ago was not a criminal offense,” she said in her closing argument. “We all make mistakes. We all fall short. He lied. He did so out of fear. He did so out of shame.”
In her sentencing, Marchal acknowledged the unusual circumstances in the case. Often, she said, she can order defendants to programs such as alcohol or drug addiction treatment. No such programs exist for the circumstances at play here, she added.
As a doctor, Cline abused the trust his patients placed in him, she said, which led her to decide against reducing his sentence to a misdemeanor.
“Your actions do deserve punishment, but I have been grappling for several weeks with what is your punishment,” she said. “You obviously caused a lot of people a lot of suffering.”
During the hearing, two of the women who initially discovered the situation testified about the impact that Cline’s actions has had on their lives.
Fighting back tears, Kristy Killion shared how the knowledge that Cline was her father has led to anxiety and panic attacks. At times, she said, she pushed those closest to her away as she felt her world spiraling out of her control.
“My reality is forever altered… I don’t know what normal is anymore,” she said. “Though aspects of this journey have broken me, some have made me stronger. Journeys usually come to an end but my journey will be a roller coaster and unfortunately I cannot step off the ride.”
Nor is this journey ending. Many of the mothers and children are now working together to persuade the Indiana General Assembly to pass a law that would make it illegal for doctors to use their own sperm to inseminate patients.
Three years ago when Jacoba Ballard took a genetic test, she expected at best to find a donor sibling or two, not to uncover nearly two dozen of them. Now, she can’t help but wonder how many more half siblings she may have out there.
And she has one request of the man who was her mother’s doctor and is her genetic father: “He could tell the truth.”
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