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A Retrial by TV Talk Show : Television: The parents of former McMartin preschool students now have a forum to retry the molestation case they lost in court.

January 31, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquiting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream.

At least that's the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants.

Some in the news media have acknowledged their own lack of restraint in the early days of McMartin, when much of the coverage indelibly branded the defendants guilty before they had their day in court.

Yet now-- after that day in court--the same thing is happening again, with some elements of the media fostering a dangerous atmosphere of vigilantism by helping rev up public opinion against the defendants.

After a Superior Court jury 13 days ago acquitted Raymond Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, of those 52 counts of child molestation, the alleged young victims and their parents became a sizzling TV ticket, and a number of them immediately hit the road.

The goal of TV? Exploit the case's publicity.

The goal of the McMartin case figures? Exploit TV. Their aim has been to use TV to retry the case--this time in their favor--and to demand another trial for Raymond Buckey on the 13 molestation charges against him on which the jury deadlocked. Prosecutors are expected to decide this week what they will do about those.

After failing to win the traditional way, the children and their parents have been arguing their case in the courtroom of TV talk shows, where cross-examination is usually minimal and emotion takes precedence over evidence.

That's their right. It's the American way. Didn't Zsa Zsa Gabor take her case to the talk shows after she lost in court? As always, however, the burden of restraint and fairness is mostly not on those wishing to exploit the medium, but on those responsible for keeping order in the TV court, the TV entrepreneurs themselves. It's their gavel to rap.

Uh oh, big trouble here.

By far the most ambitious of TV's post-McMartin retrials was Monday's episode of "Geraldo,' which was taped a week earlier.

The show's New York stage and studio were packed with former McMartin students and their parents--all aggressively opposed to the verdicts. Participating by satellite from Los Angeles were original--and now exonerated--defendant Peggy Ann Buckey, two McMartin jurors and a former McMartin student and her mother, who contended that the children weren't molested by anyone connected with the school. Also in Los Angeles was KCBS-TV reporter Harvey Levin, who for this occasion was designated as a sort of Geraldo West.

Give Rivera credit at least for a semblance of fairness, for saying that he didn't believe "one way or another" and for noting some of the legalities of the case that were being eclipsed by emotional rhetoric.

But his show was inevitably tilted in favor of the molestation charges. It's hard to overestimate the impact of a boy looking at the camera and telling a nation largely unfamiliar with the details of the case: "We were molested, and that's an honest-to-God fact."

The bias went much deeper, however. For one thing, there was the overwhelming numerical advantage for the children and parents. For another, there was their overwhelming technological advantage.

Everyone in the studio with Rivera could both see and hear everyone in Los Angeles, but those on the Los Angeles side of the satellite connection could only hear the New York side. That was a critical disadvantage, in effect isolating the TV-inexperienced Buckey and two jurors and putting them in the position of being outsiders trying to crash a closed club.

Those presenting their case in New York did so without interruption, and sometimes to applause. When Buckey spoke, she was frequently interrupted and challenged by the group in New York, whom she could not see.

At one point, in responding to old, but unproved charges that the accused molesters were involved in satanism, Buckey demanded to hear "one shred of evidence." Back in New York, Rivera began to address that, only to become sidetracked. He never returned to it, hence the satanism charge stood.

At another point, juror Danny L. Kindle in Los Angeles said he would have found Raymond Buckey guilty of molestation under the lower standards of evidence required for a civil case. But just as juror Mark Bassett began to give his opinion--a man whose previous statements on the show indicated he generally disbelieved the students' accusations--the show switched back to New York and he never got to speak. Thus, the first juror's statement was inscribed in stone.

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