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The Politics Motivating McMartin II

May 06, 1990|Kevin Cody | Kevin Cody is the publisher of the South Bay Easy Reader, Hermosa Beach

The thought that the retrial of McMartin Preschool defendant Raymond Buckey might be politically motivated should make voters shudder. Yet the circumstances surrounding Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's call for another trial--especially during his campaign for state attorney general--leave little room for any other explanation.

When the McMartin Preschool indictments were first issued in March, 1984, then-Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, facing a tough electoral challenge from Reiner, tried to exploit the case. During pretrial hearings, he sat at the side of his prosecutors in court, a practice not seen in at least 15 years. During recesses, Philibosian conducted hallway press conferences to grab some headlines.

Philibosian's conduct may not have contributed to the cause of justice. But neither did it conflict with what he had reason to believe was the proper course of action. Therapists and doctors working at the direction of his office had concluded that seven McMartin teachers had molested hundreds of children at the preschool. Two weeks before the June, 1984, primary, Philibosian added 92 counts to the grand jury's 115 against the seven defendants. The number of children allegedly involved was also increased, from 18 to 42.

In January, 1986, following an 18-month preliminary hearing, Reiner dropped all charges against five of the seven. He disclaimed any responsibility for having prosecuted the five, though he had been district attorney during the bulk of the hearing.

Reiner could not so easily shed responsibility for the results of the trial his office conducted against the two remaining McMartin defendants, Raymond Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey. A jury acquitted them on 52 of the 65 remaining counts. On the 13 undecided counts, all involving Raymond Buckey, jurors split for acquittal.

This time Reiner blamed the unlimited time, 33 months, and budget, $15 million, for the setback. "The very idea a case can go to trial for 2 1/2 years and there can be a rational result is preposterous," Reiner told reporters after the jury's verdict.

Why, then, on Jan. 29 did McMartin prosecutors Lael Rubin and Roger Gunson tell the court that the district attorney wished to prosecute Raymond Buckey again on the 13 counts involving five children?

The following weekend, Reiner said on KNBC-TV's "News Conference" that his decision was based on the "seriousness of the charges," the "feelings and concerns of the families, especially the children," the need for a "clear resolution" of the case and, finally, because "we were convinced these children were molested."

Had Reiner learned something since the end of the first trial that gave him reason to believe that, given a second chance, he could win a conviction against Raymond Buckey?

Quite possible--if someone from his office had asked the jurors why they had voted for acquittal on 52 counts and for guilty on zero counts. But jurors told reporters that no one from Reiner's office ever questioned them about their votes. In fact, on the day Rubin announced Reiner's decision to reprosecute Raymond Buckey, she mistakenly told reporters that the split on the undecided counts had been 8-4 for conviction.

The sincerity of Reiner's concern for the children and their parents rests, in part, on whether they were consulted about a second trial. One week after Rubin's announcement and Reiner's TV appearance, parents of four of the five children told reporters that they were undecided or against allowing their children to testify at a second trial.

On Feb. 5, Reiner disclosed that Rubin and Gunson would be replaced at the second trial by deputy district attorneys Joe Martinez and Pamela Ferrero. That day Martinez submitted to the court a list of 17 prosecution witnesses. It included the names of the five children connected with the 13 undecided counts.

On Feb. 28, Martinez told the court that Buckey would be prosecuted on 12 counts. Also on that day, the children's parents told reporters that they had yet to meet or even talk on the telephone to Martinez. Not until March 2 did the prosecutor contact the parents to seek permission for their children to testify. Two of the parents said no. Three said yes, including the parents of a child who had been too frightened to testify during the first trial. The jury's vote on this child's count was 11-1 for acquittal.

When Martinez returned to court March 6, he announced that Buckey would be tried on eight counts involving three children. He submitted a revised witness list that inexplicably--unless one assumed he wasn't prepared for trial--included the names of three doctors who had not examined any of the children remaining in the case.

If jurors had not indicated that there was hope for a Buckey conviction the second time around, and if the children's parents had not beseeched the district attorney to pursue justice for their children, what motivated Reiner to launch a second trial?

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