A mistrial of the chief defendant was averted Tuesday in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case when the judge granted immunity to a key prosecution witness who allegedly admitted lying under oath in another case.
"I think it most appropriate that he be granted immunity," Superior Court Judge William Pounders said after prosecutors requested the immunity grant for jail-house informant George Freeman.
Minutes before, the judge had warned the prosecution that if they did not request immunity for Freeman, he would have to consider declaring a mistrial for the chief defendant, former preschool teacher Raymond Buckey, 29.
"If the district attorney does not ask for immunity, that is the last bridge to cross," the judge warned.
"Rather than start a new trial all over again, we are requesting immunity," Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin responded.
Pounders was careful to state that the grant of immunity does not affect a pending murder investigation in which Freeman is an uncharged suspect.
A mistrial for Buckey would not have affected the trial of his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 60. Pounders said her trial would have been severed from her son's and would have continued.
Buckey and his mother are on trial on one count each of conspiracy and 99 counts of molestation for allegedly sexually assaulting 14 of their pupils at the now-closed McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach from 1978 to 1983.
The controversy surrounding Freeman began last week when he testified for the prosecution that while incarcerated with Buckey in County Jail in March, 1984, Buckey confessed molesting numerous children.
After that testimony, Rubin disclosed for the first time that Freeman admitted to her and an investigator Sept. 16 that he had lied under oath in another case stemming from the Soledad Prison riots in 1979.
Rubin said she believed Freeman, a five-time convicted felon, may also have lied in a 1984 murder case and in the preliminary hearing of the McMartin case. She made her disclosures about Freeman's alleged perjury when the jury was not present.
Pounders said Monday that if Freeman invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to answer defense questions about the perjury when the jury was present, the defense would then be denied its right to cross-examine him and a mistrial might have to be declared.
At Tuesday's hearing, which the jury did not attend, Freeman did invoke his constitutional right when asked questions about his past perjuries.
The judge then began discussing alternatives to a mistrial.
Pounders rejected granting Freeman limited immunity, striking his testimony from the court record and reading the jury a statement about Freeman's perjury.
He then warned prosecutors that the last alternative was for them to ask for immunity for Freeman.
The immunity was granted over the objections of defense attorneys on grounds that the grant would appear to be a criminal justice system endorsement of perjury.
"If Ira Reiner asks for immunity, he will be saying that if you lie for the prosecution, then we will protect you," Ray Buckey's attorney, Danny Davis, told reporters.
Davis said "a mistrial is the only solution" to the Freeman controversy.
Davis has branded Freeman a liar who made up Ray Buckey's alleged confessions to gain favor with authorities. Freeman also testified that Davis had threatened to have him killed if he kept talking with Buckey in jail.