The story of the McMartin preschool abuse trial is one that touches every raw nerve. On one hand, it is a story about children being sexually abused and the hysteria those accusations create. On the other hand it is about how the legal system can start a train running and go so far off the rails that all of the facts cannot bring it back. Many facts were in dispute in this case. Your opinions may vary depending on who you can believe.
The story of the McMartin preschool abuse trial is one that touches every raw nerve. On one hand, it is a story about children being sexually abused and the hysteria those accusations create. On the other hand it is about how the legal system can start a train running and go so far off the rails that all of the facts cannot bring it back.
Virginia McMartin ran a preschool center in Manhattan Beach, California. She hired members of her family and church to run the center, and the school had a wonderful reputation in the town. In August of 1983 one of the students at the center came home with redness on his rectal area, and his mother, Judy Johnson, concluded that it must be from sexual abuse that occurred at the preschool.
Johnson reported to the police her suspicions that her son Matthew had been sexually abused by McMartin's grandson Ray Buckey, who worked at the daycare center. It's not clear what Matthew admitted to his mother. The facts were that Matthew had irritation in his rectal area, that Ray Buckey sometimes photographed the children, and that Buckey sometimes didn't wear underwear so his genitals were visible. Johnson's story to the police was that her son had been photographed naked, tied up, and this was done to other children as well. Johnson was told to take her son to specialists in child abuse at the Children's Institute International (CII) at UCLA. From that point on, the facts and reality were completely abandoned in order to publicly try and convict the McMartin family of the most heinous crime.
Kee McFarlane was the lead specialist at CII who interviewed Matthew and later on the rest of the children at the McMartin school. She was a so-called expert in the techniques of getting children to talk about abuse. She used games with dolls to try to get children to talk about what was hard for them to talk about. Only McFarlane took these games to the extreme, introducing naked dolls with their genitals exposed. All the children denied that there was any abuse at the day care center, but McFarlane essentially coerced the children to invent the abuse that went on at the daycare center. She's praise the children who eventually said the McMartin staff would play games with their genitals. She called them stupid if they denied that it went on. And so built the case.
The entire McMartin staff was put into jail in what started one of the longest trials in US history. At the same time, a number of special reports from TV reporter Wayne Satz gave the accounts of over 60 children at the McMartin daycare who'd been abused. He reported in great detail the children's accounts of what occurred at the school, and the public was in a frenzy. Meanwhile the D.A.s office agressively pursued charges on all of the McMartins without any evidence other than the children's accounts, which had been coerced by MacFarlane's techniques. But the DA was running for re-election and nailing those awful child abusers the McMartins would go a long way. The DA's office was led by the passionate Lael Rubin who aggressively pursued more cases, and they had a total of 208 counts of child abuse against the staff at McMartin. The McMartins received death threats while their school building was vandalized and set on fire.
At this point you'd have to ask why no one raised their voice and asked "what if the children's stories weren't true and nothing had happened at the McMartin school?" But no one did and the story goes even further off the rails after that. Judy Johnson, the original accuser and the one who the whole thing began with, turns out is a paranoid schizophrenic and Matthew was sodomized likely by his father. This information and a rambling incoherent letter from Judy Johnson are withheld from defense attorney Danny Davis and the public defender Dean Gitz. Then as more stories come out from the TV reporter Wayne Satz, it turns out that Satz and Kee MacFarlane are carrying on an intimate relationship (hence all of the inside details from the children). You can't make this stuff up!
All of the McMartin staff including 78 year old Virginia McMartin were put in jail. Eventually after years of pretrial all but Ray Buckey and his mother 57 year old Peggy McMartin Buckey were released. There still was no hard evidence other than the children's accounts to Kee MacFarlane. They too were inconsistent. Some accused Ray Buckey of things that happened when Ray Buckey didn't work at the school. Plus the children's stories got more bizarre and fanciful. There were stories of going to churches and going to cemetaries to dig up graves. Still no one questioned if the stories were true.
In 1987 the trial finally began, after all the charges had to be dropped for everyone but Ray and Peggy due to lack of evidence. Defense attorneys Davis and Gits petitioned to have a change of venue, based on a survey that found 97.5% of the people in the area believed the McMartins were guilty. This was denied. By this time Judy Johnson had committed suicide so the whole first-hand account (and her lack of credibility) of the first case of child abuse was gone. Two of the lawyers in the DAs office resigned their jobs as they no longer believed in the case. But Lael Rubin pressed on. There had to be a smoking gun. And the state of California had already spent $15 million prosecuting the case. Even when it came out the prosecution had withheld the incriminating letters from Judy Johnson, the trial pressed on.
The prosecution's case rested on the children's accounts of events at the McMartin school. The defense was not allowed access to the videotaped interviews with the children, where it showed clearly that the children first denied that anything had happened but were called stupid until they admitted that sodomy, oral, and anal sex was going on, based on what the children were coerced to say happened when playing games with dolls that had exposed genitals. There was conflicting accounts from doctors who examined the children for evidence of any genital penetration. The prosecution brought in a fellow inmate of Ray Buckey's, who claimed that Buckey had admitted these things to him. But the inmate was so transparently looking for a lighter sentence deal he had no credibility.
By 1990, 7 years after the initial accusation by Judy Johnson, the trial finally went to the jury. Of the 52 counts of child abuse, the jury hung on 13 counts against Ray, and acquitted the McMartins on the rest. After 7 years the state had no convictions against the McMartins. But undeterred, Lael Rubin retried Ray Buckey on the remaining counts in a trials that began 5 months later. That trial also ended up in a hung jury.
None of the McMartin family was convicted of child abuse, but their lives were completely ruined. They lost their daycare center. They had to endure jail time and constant abuse from the public who had tried, convicted, and sentenced these people for a non-existent crime. Why are we so willing to go into a mob mentality and publicly convict these people? Or was this a perfect storm of a crazy woman, an overzealous prosecutor, a psychologist using questionable techniques with young children, and an aggressive TV reporter whipping the public into a frenzy. I guess the truth becomes irrelevant when a good witchhunt is going on.