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BOOK REVIEW : Where Memory and Misery Collide : ONCE UPON A TIME: A True Story of Memory, Murder, and the Law; by Harry N. MacLean ,HarperCollins, $22.50, 485 pages

September 24, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On November 28, 1989, three police officers arrived at an apartment complex outside Sacramento to arrest a middle-aged college student, George Franklin, on suspicion of murdering an 8-year-old girl.

Other students and faculty members at American River College were shocked by the arrest, for Franklin was regarded as a bright, hard-working man, one who neither smoked nor drank and who showed a genuine thirst for knowledge.

The San Mateo police saw Franklin differently, however, for their search of his apartment revealed an extensive collection of child pornography. They noted, too, the bumper sticker on Franklin's pickup truck: it said, in illustrated form, "Screw Guilt."

We don't learn in "Once Upon a Time" whether the bumper sticker was ever introduced at Franklin's trial, but it does seem a good thumbnail description of the defendant's life. To be sure, at the time of his arrest Franklin did seem an upstanding member of his adopted community, but he was also, at 50, a man with a monstrous past.

A San Mateo firefighter between 1961 and 1978, Franklin had spent most of those years drinking, picking up women for quick-and-dirty assignations and generally terrorizing his family through beatings, incest and sodomy that would turn his wife and five children into emotional wrecks.

But was Franklin a killer?

Yes, according to a jury--which in theory based its conviction entirely upon the testimony of Franklin's favorite daughter, Eileen, who in 1989 said she had suddenly remembered watching her father kill Susan Nason, her best friend, 20 years earlier.

Harry N. MacLean, a lawyer and author of the Edgar Award-winning book "In Broad Daylight," has produced in "Once Upon a Time" a compelling account of what is surely one of the most bizarre courtroom dramas of the last few decades.

No surprise there: the solving of a decades-old slaying, especially that of a child and with heavy emphasis on violent, criminal sex, is front-page news.

But the Franklin case goes deeper than that, for the story seems tailor-made for tabloid television . . . as indeed some people, namely Franklin's few defenders, believe in essence it was.

Eileen Franklin loved being the center of attention as a child. After her accusation, she never failed to respond to journalists calling about the case, and jeopardized her father's conviction by selling her version of the story to book and movie producers before the trial began. She also had a rap sheet, having been convicted of prostitution in 1982. She was not, in short, the most trustworthy witness, and had significant economic motivations for wanting to see her father behind bars.

MacLean bends over backward to be fair in his treatment of the Franklin case by putting the entire family on trial rather than Franklin alone. Leah Franklin, the mother, is seen as an automaton, pretending not to see what her husband was doing to the children; the children are portrayed as emotionally damaged, most of them deeply; Franklin himself seems almost rehabilitated by the early 1980s, having renounced alcohol and begun to explore religion.

In the end, though, and despite MacLean's attempts to sow doubts, it's fairly clear that Franklin's conviction was just: Jury members may have put too much faith in Eileen's long-lost memory of murder--she gave five versions of how she came to recall it--but none could doubt that Franklin's menacing ways were ultimately responsible for the memory.

"Once Upon a Time" is overlong, MacLean getting bogged down in day-to-day descriptions of the trial and the recapitulation of familiar information.

The book doesn't shed much meaningful light on the central issue in the Franklin case, either: the truth or falsity of repressed memories. MacLean does pass on the arguments put forward by opposing expert witnesses, but that testimony, having been purchased and manipulated by the attorneys involved, is tainted.

The reader, as a result, often feels frustrated. The material concerning psychology seems undigested, raw, because of the author's failure to weigh its significance on our behalf. That's a major flaw in a book, ordinarily, but less important in "Once Upon a Time" because we know early on that the Franklin case concerns a little-understood area of science that's also very new to law.

The jury in the Franklin trial deliberated only a few hours before voting to convict the defendant of first-degree murder. That seems, at first blush, an indication that Eileen's recaptured memory was extremely convincing, but it's hard to finish the book without concluding that the case turned not on Eileen's credibility but on the evidentiary rules applied by the judge.

The thinking in the courthouse's press room during the trial, MacLean reports, was that Franklin might well be convicted of murder if the prosecution were allowed, in effect, to try him for incest, and in fact that proved to be the case.

The story MacLean tells, in other words, is far from over, for if Franklin's appellate attorney can demonstrate that the admission of evidence concerning conduct for which his client was never charged--namely, the physical and sexual abuse of his family--was prejudicial to his defense, Franklin's conviction could well be thrown out. There's a good chance that MacLean, someday down the road, will feel compelled to write "Twice Upon a Time."

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