January 31

This Day in History

Crime

Jan 31, 1990:

The McMartin Preschool trials

Los Angeles prosecutors announce that they will retry teacher Raymond Buckey, who was accused of molesting children at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. The McMartin trials had already taken over six years and cost more than $13.5 million without a single guilty verdict resulting from 208 charges. However, a jury had deadlocked on 13 charges (voting 11-2 for acquittal) against Buckey, and prosecutors, not willing to let the matter drop, decided to retry him on eight of these counts.

The McMartin prosecutions represented the height of the hysteria over sexual abuse of children in America. Despite a complete lack of reputable evidence against the teachers and workers at McMartin Preschool, and with every indication that the children had been coerced and manipulated into their testimony, the prosecutors nonetheless proceeded against Ray Buckey for more than six years.

"Believe the children" became the mantra of advocates who insisted that children never lied or were mistaken about abuse. The courts made unprecedented changes to criminal procedure to accommodate this mistaken notion. The California Supreme Court ruled that child witnesses were not required to provide details about the time and place of the alleged molestation to support a conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court held that child witnesses could testify outside the courtroom despite the Sixth Amendment's clear command that a defendant had the right to confront his or her accusers.

Throughout the nation, parents and day-care workers were jailed after false, and often absurd, allegations about child sexual abuse. As this hysteria swept the country, abuse counseling quickly became a cottage industry, attracting often-unqualified people who seemed to find sexual abuse everywhere.

Recent research has found that young children are exceptionally easy to manipulate. Even when only subtly suggested, a child will respond with the answers he or she believes a questioner wants to hear.

This was abundantly clear in Ray Buckey's case. In one instance, a girl initially failed to identify Buckey as someone who had harmed her. After an interview with Children's Institute International, the counseling agency that worked with every child in the case, the girl did pick Buckey as her attacker. It later turned out that Buckey wasn't even at the school during the time period that the child attended McMartin.

Buckey's retrial went much faster. By July, the jury had acquitted on seven charges and were deadlocked (once again, the majority voting for acquittal) on the other six accusations. The district attorney then finally decided to drop the case. The Buckeys successfully sued the parents of one child for slander in 1991, but they were awarded only $1 in damages.

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