The Young Witnesses in the Mcmartin Sex Abuse Case Undergo a Legal Battering in Court
07/08/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
For 13 emotion-charged months, in one of the longest, costliest and most grueling pretrial hearings in California history, the seven defendants have confronted their accusers in court. Virginia McMartin, 77, founder of the notorious Manhattan Beach, Calif. preschool bearing her name, and six of her teachers, all pleading not guilty, heard a procession of 13 former pupils, some as young as 5, accuse them of shocking crimes. The children have testified that they were raped, sodomized and forced to witness animal sacrifices and satanic rites.
After 40,000 pages of testimony and costs amounting to $2.4 million, the hearings have been suspended while the Los Angeles Superior Court considers whether another five children, whose parents refuse to let them take the stand in open court, may give evidence via closed circuit TV. Under a state law passed since the McMartin hearings began, this procedure is now legal in California. A child can be removed from the courtroom—and the scrutiny of the defendants and their lawyers—and give testimony in a separate room where only a camera operator, a bailiff, a "support person," who is usually a parent, and, possibly, an independent observer are present. The McMartin case spurred the legal change, and now the parents feel their children should benefit. Municipal Court Judge Aviva Bobb has ruled, however, that the procedure cannot be introduced partway through the McMartin case.
Each defendant in the trial is represented by a lawyer, and some children have faced intimidating cross-examinations by as many as six defense attorneys. "The kids are terrified," says Kee MacFarlane, the psychologist who first interviewed the young witnesses. "There are lots of parents and therapists who will have to deal with the results for years after the trial."
In an encounter all too typical of the preliminary hearings, attorney Daniel Davis, who is defending teacher Raymond Buckey, rose to question Jessica, a blond and bouncy 6-year-old. In one 32-minute span during Jessica's second day on the stand, Davis used the word "kill" 24 times:
Now, when Ray told you not to tell the secrets...didn't he tell you that the only person he would kill if you told the secrets was your mom?
Did Ray tell you that if you told the secrets he would kill your mom?
Did he tell you how he would kill your mom?
From lawyer Davis' point of view he is just doing his job, trying to get his client off. Jessica (not her real name) visibly wilted under the attorney's barrage—she drew up her knees, lapsed into periods of silence and lisping, and began chewing the ear of the stuffed rabbit at her side. By day's end the ear was gnawed and sopping wet.
Compared to her fellow witnesses, Jessica got off lightly. She was on the stand some 15 hours during a four-day period, whereas Patricia was grilled for 24 hours in eight days, and Danny (again, not their real names) was on the spit more than 50 hours in 16 days. Davis pressed Patricia, 9, for intimate particulars of an alleged attack by Buckey: He wanted to know what it felt like, how Buckey moved his body during the act. The color vanished from the girl's countenance and she hid her face in her hands.
Later, outside the courtroom, her mother comforted Patricia. "It's okay to cry, honey," she said. The girl wiped her eyes and shook her head. "Not in front of them," Patricia replied, meaning the seven teachers who were so palpably present while she was being questioned. Subsequently Davis would ask Patricia to imagine that the microphone was a penis and to show the court how Buckey allegedly touched a boy.
Two weeks past his 10th birthday when he testified, Danny was one of the smallest fourth-graders in his school. When the freckle-faced redhead climbed into the witness stand, his feet dangled above the floor—requiring the bailiff to prop a makeshift footrest against the chair. Danny was quizzed longer than any other child. "I could see him wearing down," says his mother. "He would fidget. He would yawn. He drank tremendous amounts of water. By the end of the 16 days he'd gained six pounds from nibbling junk food."
Danny broke on the third day of his testimony. At an afternoon recess he ran into a witness room provided for the children and threw himself into the lap of a huge teddy bear, weeping uncontrollably. "They're laughing at me," he sobbed. Then, to his mother's surprise, Danny pulled himself together and told the bailiff he was ready to resume testifying.
The parents complain that their children are "revictimized" on the witness stand. "I look at our legal system and think, 'Jeez, it's archaic,' " says Danny's mother. "It's unbelievable what the lawyers do to these kids. And it's allowed. It's okay." The system, says Deputy D.A. Lael Rubin, is not set up to protect child witnesses. "When you hear repetitive questions," Rubin declares, "there's only one intent: to intimidate the child." "Yes," agrees another mother, "the attorneys grill the kids unmercifully. They conspire among themselves to see how they can twist and destroy these kids' testimony."
Resilient in court, Danny has had a rough time on the outside. Normally an A student, his grades went down as his weight went up. Jessica, too, has had her share of ills. Fearful during the hearing that Buckey had a knife, she has since experienced nightmares and bed-wetting. Patricia's parents are proud of the way she's come through. On balance, they say, the ordeal has been "a positive experience" for her. It is Patricia's brother, Nicholas (not his real name), now 8, they worry about. Also allegedly abused at McMartin, he has been emotionally unable to testify and has had bad dreams. "He came into our room one morning at 5," says the mother. "He had dreamed that he was at a funeral, and there was a body all in separate parts. Another day, out of the blue, he asked me, 'Do dead people bleed?' "
The brave testimony of a 10-year-old girl convicts her former foster-father
The 10-year-old witness walked shyly into the courtroom in Van Nuys, Calif. looking far more like a frightened innocent than the seductive woman-child described by the defense attorney in his opening statement. Wearing white knee socks, black patent leather shoes and a red ribbon in her shoulder-length blond hair, she clutched a teddy bear as she was escorted to the stand to testify against her 34-year-old foster-father, James McDermott.
"Did someone touch you?" Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Freeman asked.
The little girl slumped in her seat and stared hypnotically at the ceiling lights and then her lap. "Yes," she replied.
"Jim," she whispered, rocking back and forth.
"Where were you touched?"
There was silence—a gap that seemed, as one juror put it, "interminable." Freeman, a veteran of more than 100 child abuse cases, handed her a yellow legal pad and asked her if she would like to write down the answer. Placing her teddy bear beside her, she took the pen and slowly printed out the words, "my pee-pee." Freeman could feel the tension mounting in the courtroom as he showed the paper to his adversary, defense attorney Ralph Courtney, and carried it to the judge, who read the answer to the hushed jury.
For the young girl, it was just the beginning of four days of excruciating testimony that would pit her horrific account of child abuse against the denials of McDermott. A burly $5-an-hour accountant, McDermott and his wife had raised the child ever since her natural parents—neighbors in the same apartment complex—had abandoned her when she was 1 year old. (She was never formally adopted by the couple.) Charged with seven counts of molestation and causing great bodily injury, which carried a possible 61-year prison sentence, McDermott was arrested in October 1983 after his foster daughter began vaginally hemorrhaging. After a school nurse became aware of the bleeding, the girl was taken by her mother to the hospital, where a gynecological examination revealed traces of sperm, a ruptured and scarred hymen and internal vaginal injuries. Investigators claimed the injuries were caused by repeated forced intercourse, including one rape at knifepoint, by McDermott. The attacks took place over a two-year period.
The prosecution may have had the physical evidence on its side, but the defense had the judicial system working for it. The McDermott trial offered a textbook example of the difficulties of questioning children in a forum intended for adults. "The adult courtroom is totally alien to the abilities of a child witness," says University of California child psychiatrist Dr. Roland Summit. "A kid doesn't have a chance to explain what's on his mind in the face of a defense attorney whose goal is to make him out to be a liar. The child's inabilities to remember time, place and small details are used against him."
Defense attorney Ralph Courtney played his role to the hilt. Admitting that his client was guilty of committing one act of child abuse—"he got on top of her and rubbed her with his penis"—Courtney insisted that the girl was "fantasizing" and "trying to get attention" with her litany of allegations. "If there were other acts of abuse," he said, "they were not committed by my client."
Courtney admits he is not an expert at defending child molestation cases, but he claims to have picked up pointers from seminars sponsored by the Los Angeles County public defender's office. "Children are insidious, practiced liars," asserted Mike Adelson, an 18-year veteran of the office, who has led many of the seminars, instructing lawyers on how to frighten, cajole and confuse children on the witness stand. "You want the child to be intimidated," Adelson told a packed lecture hall during a class last year. "Be prepared to show through cross-examination that the child has a vivid imagination and can't be trusted."
In court, Courtney first painted a glum portrait of a neglected, attention-starved child who could easily be coaxed into saying anything the authorities wanted her to say. Next, he so strongly attacked the social worker who reported McDermott's abuses to the police that she fled weeping from the courtroom, and he tried to discredit the gynecologist who examined the girl in the hospital emergency room. When the girl took the stand for cross-examination, Courtney jabbed his finger at her, badgering her with questions about her "real mom and dad," accusing her of lying about the details of the abuse, and trying to confuse her with ambiguous points: "Is hugging touching as far as you're concerned?"
"Why would you say that you wouldn't let him touch you if you let him hug you?"
"He was the most abrasive, outrageous human being I had ever seen," said juror Monique Weiner. But the questioning achieved its intended effect: "Her legs were trembling in the witness box," recalls juror Rosalie Glickman. "I saw her crumbling." The child, in fact, wet her pants on the witness stand.
Reassured by the judge and prosecutor, however, and permitted frequent breaks during which she was hugged and supported by her new foster parents, the little girl was able to recoup and again testify. She stuck to her story. She told of living in a climate of fear and intimidation, of being repeatedly attacked and molested by McDermott, who would hide in a closet and jump out at her. Throughout the testimony, her alleged victimizer remained expressionless. "When she broke down," observed juror Chantal Swanson, "McDermott just sat there stone-faced."
The jury deliberated the case for five days. Although some were concerned about inconsistencies and the girl's reluctance to answer questions, they agreed that the weight of the physical evidence indicated long-term abuse. They found McDermott guilty on all counts and he has been sentenced to 20 years in state prison. Meanwhile the little girl is struggling to overcome her ordeal with the help of therapy and the support of her new foster family. She is beginning to do well in school and is active in the Girl Scouts, but she still has a nervous twitch, bites her nails, thrashes wildly in her sleep and is afraid of the dark. "It's sad," says her new foster-mother. "She just missed out on being a little girl."