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Out of Smoke and Mirrors, Some Lessons : McMartin: The case has been a tragedy. But it can be redeemed if we pay attention to what it tells us about our biases, especially those concerning our children.

January 21, 1990|BENJAMIN J. STEIN | Benjamin J. Stein is a lawyer and economist

Raymond Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, are free.

Acquittals on 52 counts and deadlocks on 13 more led to the end of the six-year McMartin Pre-School child-molestation case and the release of the last two defendants. It was an excruciating ordeal for the defendants, including the five McMartin teachers whose charges were dropped four years ago, for the children called to testify and probably for everyone else involved. Yet it offers important lessons.

We as a society are almost incomprehensibly quick to accept even the most exaggerated charges when they relate to our children. Remember the claim a few years ago that 2 million American children were missing? Remember how it was accepted as gospel until it was shown to be thin air? Remember the charge that there were 500,000 American children working in pornographic movies every year? That one came from none other than Charles H. Keating Jr., that paragon of loans and law. Yet it seemed to be believed for a time until it too was seen to be just imagination. Then there was Tawana Brawley, the black teen-age girl who claimed, out of whole cloth, that she was raped by whites in New York state. The story was riddled with inconsistencies yet plenty of people believed it.

And then there was McMartin. The evidence was weak and dubious. There was no physical corroboration at all of the lurid tales of dead horses and stabbed dogs. Yet it was taken as truth.

McMartin scared a nation, put a dark cloud of suspicion over teachers and schools--and all out of smoke and mirrors.

Lesson No. 1: Even when children are involved, the reasoning process should apply.

As the world knows by now, and as those of us who have followed the case for years knew a long time ago, the child witnesses were cajoled by therapist Kee MacFarlane to talk about their alleged victimization. On videotape, she is seen leading the children, almost seeming to compel reluctant kids to tell of sex abuse that she suggested to them. The results of her "examinations" of the children were what got the whole desperate charade started.

Lesson 2: Mental-health workers are not perfect. They can act against the interests of the kids they are treating. They can end up subjecting innocent kids to years of pain. Let's not think they are sacrosanct just because they say they are.

Then-Dist. Atty Robert Philibosian began the case on the word of a sadly deluded mother who had spent much of her life in treatment for mental problems and substance abuse. She died in 1986. There hadn't been complaints from children until she badgered parents and police into hysteria. There wasn't clear physical evidence against the defendants, and a huge amount of what the kids said was clear invention and nonsense.

Yet on the basis of unsubstantiated badgering, Philibosian put seven people in jail and ruined countless lives. The current district attorney, Ira Reiner, admitted grave problems with the case in 1986, yet continued it against the last two defendants. Sex-crimes prosecutors in other jurisdictions were incredulous that the case could proceed on such flimsy grounds.

Clearly, this was a case straining the discretion usually accorded to prosecutors. Had there not been such a political outcry, so much heat in the media, it is indeed doubtful that the case would have continued, let alone started. But prosecutors are paid to take the heat. In the responsibilities of a prosecutor, not prosecuting is just as important as prosecuting.

Lesson 3: Someone and some procedure must supervise prosecutors. Normally this is done by judges. Our Los Angeles Superior Court judges clearly lack the political courage to do it.

The last two defendants went through an extraordinary ordeal. Even now, Peggy McMartin Buckey is said to be getting death threats. Innocent, yet still tortured, she and her son persisted with considerable dignity. If legal procedures are strengthened after this trial, we can thank this experience.

Lesson 4: When people are not guilty, stop blaming them as if they were. Trust our system of justice.

The whole episode has been a tragedy. If we learn from it, it can be redeemed. But let's not forget that some prominent people made some terrible, ongoing mistakes. Let's remember them, too.

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