Lessons from the McMartin Case
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 1990.
RAYMOND BUCKEY and his 63-year-old mother were acquitted of
sexually abusing the children in the McMartin Preschool because the jury could
not tell whether the children had actually gone through the horrible things they
described - or imagined them following the unintentional prompting of adult
investigators and therapists.
The Buckey's actual guilt or innocence will long be debated, but
even now, the case offers important lessons which might prevent a replay of this
1.Parents and other adults must be alert to the possibility of
child abuse, but the threat should not be exaggerated. The sexual abuse of
children is a serious national problem. But the danger needs to be kept in
perspective. According to a study conducted for the US National Center on Child
Abuse and Neglect, children are much less likely to be abused in day care than
by their own parents.
2.Children must be encouraged to tell about being sexually abused,
but inappropriate interviewing techniques can undermine the credibility of their
statements. In cases of sexual abuse, where there are often no witnesses and
only ambiguous physical indicators, the child's statements may be the only
evidence. A child's description of being abused should be pursued vigorously -
but with an open mind.
It is not true, as some experts assert, that ''children never
lie.'' As the McMartin case demonstrates, for young children the basic issue is
whether an interviewer has used suggestive techniques to implant a distorted or
untrue idea in the child's mind.
3.Horrifying tales of widespread sexual abuse and satanic rituals
should make us skeptical, even if they make titillating reading. Initial reports
about McMartin highlighted disgusting tales of animal murder and bizarre
behavior which, for months, were reported as true, not only by the supermarket
tabloids, but by our most respected news organizations. One child, for example,
testified in the preliminary hearing that he was taken to a cemetery, where he
was forced to help dig up a coffin and watch as the body was cut up with knives.
Even when the investigation failed to corroborate the children's most grizzly
allegations, few asked whether the assumptions underlying the entire case should
4.The McMartin acquittals do not mean that we have to abandon due
process of law and the presumption of innocence in order to protect children. As
a former prosecutor in the New York City Family Court, I know how excruciatingly
hard it can be to prove child sexual abuse. The real need, however, is not legal
shortcuts but, rather, well-handled investigations and trials. The McMartin case
serves as a primer of how not to investigate child abuse.
The legal case was compromised at the onset - when the police,
after receiving the first report of possible abuse at the preschool, sent a
letter to the families of 200 current and former students that read: ''Please
question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he
or she has been a victim.
The letter went on to say that sexual abuse may have taken place
under ''the pretense of 'taking the child's temperature.''' It also implied that
Ray Buckey was the perpetrator.
5.The American jury is our best protection against overzealous law
enforcement. It is hard to imagine a case in which untried defendants were more
unequivocally convicted by the media and the public. A ''lynch-mob syndrome'' is
what the Los Angeles Times called it.
Our jury system has recently been much criticized for being
old-fashioned and inefficient. But in watching juries decide controversial cases
like McMartin, one cannot help being impressed by their ability to avoid
passions of the day and to weigh evidence fairly.
6.There must be greater accountability for abuses of prosecutorial
discretion. In order to insure that prosecutors exercise their discretion free
from fear of lawsuits, they have absolute legal immunity for their decisions.
Yet, Peggy Buckey spent two years in jail; her son nearly five years. And there
have been suggestions that electoral politics played a role in the DA's
decisions. Whatever happened in this particular case, these days prosecutors are
too easily tempted to overreach when a case may make the evening news. State
attorneys general, appellate courts, and bar associations should be more
receptive to citizen complaints of bad faith prosecution.
Protecting children from sexual abuse requires more than good
intentions. It requires skilled professional intervention, attention to due
process, and common sense. For the sake of all, let's hope that lesson has been
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