Friday, April 5, 2013

The McMartin pre-school witchhunt

A bit of tragic history: a real judicial atrocity from 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California.

The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, should serve as a cautionary tale. When it was all over, the government had spent seven years and $15 million dollars investigating and prosecuting a case that led to no convictions. More seriously, the McMartin case left in its wake hundreds of emotionally damaged children, as well as ruined careers for members of the McMartin staff. No one paid a bigger price than Ray Buckey, one of the principal defendants in the case, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial for a crime (most people recognize today) he never committed. McMartin juror Brenda Williams said that the trial experience taught her to be more cautious: "I now realize how easily something can be said and misinterpreted and blown out of proportion." Another juror, Mark Bassett, singled out "experts" for blame: "I thought some of the expert testimony about the children told you more about the expert than the child. I mean, if the expert says children are always 100% believable and then you have a child who is not believable, either the expert is extremely biased or they've never seen anything like that child before."

Please read the whole thing.

Philip Terzian of the Weekly Standard puts the MacMartin case in perspective:

As we now know, the McMartin preschool case was a complete invention. But in the course of the next decade it led to dozens of comparable cases across the United States involving similar allegations of years of ritual abuse and misconduct in nursery schools, featuring bizarre sexual practices and satanic rituals. Worst of all, it inspired police agencies, psychologists, social workers, journalists, and prosecutors to embark on literal witch-hunts, resulting in the conviction and imprisonment of dozens of innocent people. It took yet another decade for the imaginary epidemic of pre-school sexual abuse to subside, and years to free those who had been falsely imprisoned. 
It has always intrigued me that, in a culture that is relentlessly self-critical, there has never been a scholarly account of the pre-school hysteria and witch-hunts of the 1980s and '90s in America. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal did heroic work on the subject—largely involving a case in Massachusetts—for which she was belatedly awarded a Pulitzer prize. But to my knowledge this curious and disconcerting episode has attracted little, if any, notice among historians and social analysts. 
Which is odd: We moderns like to think that we are exempt from some of the baser instincts of human nature, but hysteria, mob rule, and spectral fears are still very much with us. Moreover, in this instance, the American judicial system failed systematically, blighting hundreds of lives: Many more genuinely innocent people went to prison, and for longer terms, than any Communist during the McCarthy era. And the parallels with the Salem witch trials are nearly complete—except, perhaps, for the fact that the judges in Salem (notably Samuel Sewall) were considerably more learned and deliberate than contemporary jurists.
The McMartins and the other defendants should never have been prosecuted, and were almost certainly innocent. They and the children were the innocent victims of these reckless prosecutors, incompetent and unprofessional "experts", and hysterical parents.

The trials should been followed by a series of disbarments, revocation of professional licenses, and lawsuits. Prosecutors, "experts" and false accusers should be held accountable for this kind of judicial atrocity.

I do a fair amount of expert medical testimony on (physical) child abuse cases. I testify of course as to what I believe to be the truth, and often I testify for the defense. There are many people wrongly accused on the thinnest and least credible of evidence, and while most prosecutors and experts are capable and honest, I've seen some bad behavior. I spent a year and a half a while ago defending a mother wrongly accused of assaulting her son. The injury (which was minor) was obviously accidental, but an overzealous medical "expert" went after the family with a vengeance.  Their four kids were taken away, the mom had to be bailed out of jail, and the family was ruined financially. The matter was only dropped by the prosecution when a judge examined my testimony and that of the other expert and ruled that the prosecution was without basis.

There are real witch-hunts out there. Innocent people are prosecuted and go to jail, more often than we like to think. The criminal justice system needs a lot of improvement, and our failure as a society to be outraged by stuff like this is a scandal.

There are people who are working to make this better. The Innocence Project is a great organization, and they can use your support. 


  1. Wow, something we can all agree on. You don’t see that every day.

    The criminal justice system must always err on the side of letting guilty people walk in order to minimize the injustice of incarcerating innocent people. We must accept the greater personal risk of more criminals on the street in order to guard our own liberty.


    1. I am sure by the end of the day this thread will have half the comments bashing atheists and liberals. The potential is right there.


    2. KW,

      Now apply that same logic to amendment rights.

  2. @Hoo:

    "I am sure by the end of the day this thread will have half the comments bashing atheists and liberals."

    Kathleen MacFarlane, the "psychologist" who interviewed the children and concocted the bizarre allegations, was a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women.


    I didn't mention it in the post, but since you bring it up...

    1. That's 25 percent if you include my latest comment. Gotta work harder, Dr. Egnor.


  3. Interesting. Over here we had a similar case of mass hysteria in 1987. In a small village, 70 children had allegedly been abused by men dressed as clowns. Some children even claimed to have witnessed satanic rituals involving the slaughter of people. Dubious psychiatric methods with 'anatomically correct' [i.e. having a dick] dolls contributed to the hysteria. No solid evidence was ever uncovered and there never was a trial. To this day there are villagers who insist on the reality of a satanic conspiracy.

    Personally, I blame the RCC.

  4. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyApril 5, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    This case, and other like it, were all the rage when I was teaching in Boston. Kee MacFarlane, the "psychotherapist" and inventor of the "anatomically correct dolls" in the McMartin case, was trained as a social worker and was not licensed to practice anything at the time.

    There were several other cases (e.g., Amiraults, MA), and I do recall cars in Boston with bumper stickers reading "Believe the children!!". If memory serves, they were usually plastered on the bumpers of Volvos. In Boston. We all know what that means... ;-)

  5. While the McMartin case was obviously hysteria, there have been dozens of cases of ritualistic and totally unexplained killings over the years.
    Further the media and entertainment industries are PLASTERED with satanic imagery.
    Let's not run from one extreme to the other. Let's not shift from witch hunts to denial.
    Evil exists, and there are those among us that worship it. Some of them in very high places.

  6. Mike,

    I just wanted to add that you're defence of these people being hounded by over-zealous prosecutors is extremely admirable.

    I know several veterans in the US who have gone through hell to get their children back because of such bogus allegations.

    God bless you for bringing this very sensitive issue to light.