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McMartin Inquiry Attacked as Inept : Windup of Hearing Brings Criticism From Parents and Defense Attorneys

Times Staff Writer

When the 10-month-long preliminary hearing in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case ended abruptly last week in dismissal of two-thirds of the original charges, defense attorneys and parents of many of the alleged victims found themselves in rare agreement on one point: that the investigation and prosecution of the case had been botched from the beginning.

“It was destined to fall apart,” said Bill Powell Jr., who represents defendant Mary Ann Jackson, 57, who now faces only four charges after 16 were dismissed for lack of evidence. “It was overfiled by a district attorney running for office . . . and now we’re down to something we can try.”

“It has been mishandled from the start,” said the father of two children allegedly molested at the Manhattan Beach nursery school. “Nobody listened to the parents. And decisions made for the right reasons turned out to have catastrophic results.”

Evidence Is Cited

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The government’s case has hardly collapsed, prosecutors say, noting that although it has shrunk from more than 300 counts to 90 counts, both testimony and medical evidence support the charges now being considered by a Municipal Court judge. Any of those, of course, could be dismissed if the judge does not find the testimony of all 13 child witnesses credible.

The district attorney’s office Friday won a stay of the proceedings while it attempts to win court approval to present closed-circuit television testimony from five more children--on 40 additional counts--and prosecutors have asked the judge to add 50 other counts which were not originally charged but which emerged in testimony.

At present, Ray Buckey still faces a possible 90 charges of molestation. His mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, faces 24; his grandmother and the school’s founder, Virginia McMartin, three; his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey, one. Betty Raidor is charged with 12, Babette Spitler with seven, and Jackson with four. All, former teachers at the nursery school, are charged with a combined count of conspiracy.

Municipal Judge Aviva K. Bobb was the target of criticism and crank calls last week, when she dismissed most of the charges. However, since prosecutors had not presented a single witness to testify to them, the judge had no alternative.

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Television Issue

She was also criticized for refusing to allow remaining child witnesses to testify by closed-circuit television, a procedure she ruled constitutional but inapplicable to a case already in progress. That decision appeared to bring the case down, because the government immediately rested its case, saying it had run out of witnesses, and was followed by the defense. However, the television arrangement would have enabled five more children, at most, to testify.

Lawyers, parents and other sources close to the case say what was once described as “the biggest child sexual abuse case in history” has been coming quietly unglued for a long time, not just because of last week’s developments. Nor has its success been undermined by a single decision, person or agency, they say.

What went wrong?

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Observers say the tiny Manhattan Beach Police Department was ill-equipped to investigate such a large and complex case, that a district attorney running for reelection filed too many charges too soon and assigned the case to inexperienced prosecutors, that anxious, upset parents were misled and ultimately disillusioned, that the neophyte judge hearing the case failed to control her courtroom and made decisions that sent the case twisting off in unexpected directions, and that the current court system itself is inappropriate for handling cases involving children.

Variety of Factors

Those who have followed the case closely say these factors contributed to the case’s problems:

- When defendant Raymond Buckey, now 27, was first arrested (and promptly released) in September of 1983, the Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a form letter to parents of children attending McMartin telling them their children may have been molested. Some parents contacted the school and word spread. By the time school founder Virginia McMartin and six teachers, including Buckey, were indicted the following March, more than five months had elapsed--ample time for any evidence pertinent to the case to have been destroyed.

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- Whether because of zeal, election campaign tactics, or pressure from the media, then-Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian moved quickly in the spring of 1984 to file hundreds of charges before his investigators felt they had a solid case and without focusing on a few strong, provable counts.

- The case was taken away from the district attorney’s crack child abuse unit, then headed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jean Matusinka (now a Superior Court judge), and reassigned to a team of prosecutors with little or no experience in handling child sexual abuse cases. No explanation was ever provided by the district attorney for the decision.

- Although two defendants did not request a preliminary hearing, and several more later asked to proceed directly to trial rather than undergo a combined preliminary hearing, this was opposed by prosecutors who said they wanted to try the McMartin seven together and to use the pretrial hearing to elicit evidence and strengthen their still-developing case.

- The majority of alleged child victims first “disclosed” they had been molested in videotaped sessions at Children’s Institute International, a local center for the diagnosis and treatment of child abuse. But the interviews, which played a pivotal part in the hearing, were later criticized by child abuse professionals and defense lawyers as inept efforts by therapists who were neither psychologists nor psychiatrists to suggest and ultimately persuade hundreds of children, including those named as complaining witnesses, that they had been victimized at McMartin.

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- For much of the lengthy hearing, defense lawyers were completely unrestrained by the judge in their cross-examination: they were allowed to repeat questions already asked by other counsel, to question children who had not implicated their clients, and to move into areas not directly relevant to the counts charged. They focused on the more bizarre aspects of the children’s stories, eliciting tales of satanic rituals, animal mutilations and field trips to a graveyard, a church, a local market, a nearby farm and several unfamiliar houses.

- Decisions that were well-intentioned, such as adding a count of conspiracy naming all seven defendants and consolidating their preliminary hearing, ultimately lengthened the proceedings and subjected each witness to intense cross-examination by all seven defense attorneys: One child was on the stand for 16 days. Some legal experts say the case should have been severed, with seven separate, short preliminary hearings, each with a few different child witnesses.

- Parents say prosecutors assured them their children would never have to confront their accused molesters in open court, and that none of the seven would get out of jail. However, only two defendants, Ray Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey, remain behind bars; the others are free on bail. And although the judge initially approved the use of closed-circuit television and held weeks of hearings to determine whether it was necessary, she eventually ruled against the arrangement after an appellate decision in another case held that no statutory authority existed for the use of televised testimony.

Held Not Applicable

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Even after McMartin parents led lobbying efforts to get such a bill passed--and succeeded--Bobb said the new law could not be applied to a case already in progress.

That ruling, last Tuesday, forced the prosecution’s hand. Prosecutors had to proceed with a 14th child witness in open court or rest their case. They rested.

Prosecutors blamed defense tactics and the judge’s permissiveness. In a written statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin told the court that while the prosecution had intended to call all 41 children named in the complaint as witnesses, that was precluded by the “abuse that has taken place in the courtroom.”

She cited interminable cross-examination--one defense attorney questioned the last witness for five days. She cited instances in which defense lawyers tried to intimidate children--one, for example, asked the child about threats to kill her and her parents 26 times in 47 minutes.

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Three children broke down and sobbed during cross-examination; others grew visibly tired and perplexed; and parents of those who appeared strongest on the witness stand said even their children had grown fearful and became ill after testifying.

Impact of Ordeal

Rubin said 16 families had refused to allow their children to testify after seeing the judicial process in action, and the government itself had decided not to call another seven “because we believe that they could not withstand the lengthy ordeal.” That left, she said, only the five who would still testify if they could do so by closed-circuit television.

Defense attorney Daniel Davis, who represents key defendant Ray Buckey, said he believes the case disintegrated both because it was “overcharged” and because parents’ expectations had not been met.

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His colleague, attorney Powell, agreed. “No district attorney in his right mind would have filed this many (more than 300) counts. I said it first when I came out of the arraignment hall (last spring) and saw him (Philibosian) hanging out wanting to be interviewed.”

As the hearing dragged on, Powell said, “parents were disgusted with how the district attorney was handling the case . . . a category of kids had been dropped because their testimony would be too bizarre . . . some parents were never behind (did not believe) the charges and will be called by us (at trial) . . . and others are angry and frustrated over the (judicial) process.”

Indeed, McMartin parents angrily demanded a meeting last week with the district attorney’s office, complaining that they were “disappointed and disillusioned.”

Information From Press

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They said the government was uncommunicative, that they had to ask reporters whether their children were on or off the witness list, and that they were never consulted about whether they felt their children were strong enough to testify in the first place.

And they said they want some answers now. These include whether any dropped charges will be refiled, why certain children who are willing to testify were dropped, whether the district attorney will pursue the 50 additional counts they say emerged during testimony, and whether the prosecution really intends to call more children if their closed-circuit television appeal succeeds.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, head of the district attorney’s sex crimes and domestic violence division, refused to speak to the 100 parents who jammed the American Martyrs School hall Thursday night unless a Times reporter left.

Afterward, the parents were calmer, but they said they knew little more after the two-hour meeting than before, but they felt Gunson’s attitude was “positive.” They say he gave them no assurances and did not speculate on what might happen next in the surprising case.

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Said one parent: “I have a sense of being manipulated. Parents just want to trust somebody and they’re intimidated by what they don’t know.”

Feelings of Parents

One father said he had prepared himself for the worst but was still having a hard time accepting that the bulk of the case against the defendants has evaporated.

“What bothers me the most is the fear that people are going to minimize the severity of what went on, the credibility of the case, by the inability of more of these kids to testify. I sense that some will accept so many charges being dismissed as vindication. People might seize the moment to say it didn’t happen. It’s real painful for me to hear people talk about the whole thing being a hoax when we are dealing with a case where the majority of 41 children showed clear and convincing signs of molestation. The continuing discrediting of these children is the greatest tragedy to me. We discount the fact that the evidence (that remains) is strong.”

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