As 24-year-old Donna Perren saw it, it was a case of being presumed guilty until she could prove her innocence.
On Feb. 22, 1984, the Costa Mesa mother of two was jailed on felony charges of child abuse for allegedly inflicting burns on a child she had been baby-sitting.
Though she protested her innocence from the start, Perren said she was shunned by her neighbors, forced to drop out of cosmetology school and forced to quit her job so she could make the requisite appearances in court.
Jury Acquitted Her
Last week, a year and a half after Perren's nightmare began, she was acquitted by a Superior Court jury.
But if she were overjoyed to be exonerated, Perren said Wednesday that she is still outraged at the ease with which she had been arrested and tried.
All three of her public defenders had urged Perren to plead guilty to at least one felony count rather than risk a 7-year prison term, Perren said, and it was only through persistent denials that she finally convinced her last attorney, Deputy Public Defender Lewis Clapp, that she was innocent.
In all, her first encounter with the criminal justice system was "very scary," Perren said in a lengthy interview Wednesday at her apartment.
"I hope people out there really think that it's possible for a person suspected of child abuse to be not guilty of child abuse," Perren said, adding: "Child abuse does occur. But a thorough investigation should be done before people are hauled away and thrown in jail."
Perren moved to Costa Mesa with her husband and two children in July, 1982. After the couple separated in October, 1983, Perren decided to begin baby-sitting to help support herself, her daughter, Nicole, then 3, and her son, Dominic, then 4.
Perren's first--and only--client was Kathy Krampota, a 26-year-old computer operator with a 3-year-old daughter, Loretta Ann. After about a month, Perren said, she invited Krampota to move into her three-bedroom apartment to share the rent. Krampota was rarely around and Perren said she became a substitute mother for her roommate's child.
(Krampota has moved out of the state and could not be reached for comment.) On Feb. 22, when Krampota was at work, Perren heard cries from the bedroom where Loretta and Nicole were playing. She found Loretta biting Nicole's arm.
As Perren pulled Loretta away, the child chomped down on Perren's chin "like a pit bull," Perren said. Desperate to dislodge the girl, Perren said she tugged at Loretta's hair, pulling out several clumps. Perren's two children hit Loretta with their toys. Finally the child let go, deeply scraping Perren's chin in the process, she recounted.
When Loretta released her jaws, "it was an instant reaction--I hit her in the mouth," Perren said.
Loretta's lips began to swell immediately, Perren said, and she put ice on them. That evening, when Krampota got home, the mother at first appeared unconcerned about her daughter. But she suddenly decided to take Loretta to a hospital, Perren recalled.
At UCI Medical Center, doctors said Loretta's swollen lips appeared to have been burned. They also reported finding bruises, several adult bites and a cigarette burn under Loretta's armpit. The child was hospitalized for five days. Meanwhile, emergency room doctors called police.
Police immediately suspected Perren and arrested her on charges of felony child abuse. After a night in jail, Perren was released. But later that day, Costa Mesa police officers stopped by her apartment to search it and confiscate some of Perren's belongings, including a curling iron and her makeup.
(Makeup had been used to cover one of Loretta's bite marks, Perren said.)
Perren continued to proclaim her innocence. She was angered that, from the beginning, she was the only suspect in the case. Police never confiscated items belonging to Loretta's mother, Perren pointed out.
"What really got me," she said Wednesday, "is that if police officers really felt I abused my child, why didn't they go in and check my own children to see if they were abused? No one ever came to check my children."
Perren said she is so opposed to violence that she refuses to spank her two children, adding that she disciplines them by making them sit quietly for 15 minutes to half an hour in a corner.
As the months went by, the Costa Mesa woman said she went through an agonizing time trying to figure out "how do I prove I'm innocent."
Perren said she had to quit cosmetology school and, later, a job with a security firm because of her many court appearances. She began spending hours in the library, studying medical texts and trying to find out what could have been wrong with Loretta's lips besides burns.
Another part of her battle was convincing residents of her apartment complex that she was innocent. "There were rumors, 'There's the child abuser,' " her lawyer, Clapp, said. "They would avoid eye contact, avoid speaking to her."
Several months ago, however, a neighbor had asked Perren directly if she had abused the little girl. "I explained exactly what happened," Perren said, adding that since then, neighbors have been "very supportive."
Initially, even Clapp said he thought Perren was guilty. But Perren insisted that she didn't burn the child and wasn't a child abuser, prompting Clapp to do some research.
During the monthlong trial, Clapp produced experts in burns and infectious diseases who testified that Loretta's lip injuries appeared to have been caused by infection, not burns.
Still, Clapp worried that Perren might be convicted.
"I had encouraged her to plead to the felony count and go for a sentence that would keep her out of prison," Clapp said. "She said there's just no way she was about to plead guilty. But there comes a point where it's better to be safe than sorry. She was facing over seven years in prison."
Perren cried when the not-guilty verdict was read last week. Afterwards, "I hugged every single one of the jurors," she said.
She also thanked the court even though Clapp told her: "You shouldn't be thanking anybody. They should be apologizing to you."
No one has apologized yet, but Perren said that she is not waiting around. Now that the trial is over, she's trying to put her life back together.
After a brief vacation, Perren plans to return to cosmetology school. She may get married again soon. But for now, her fondest wish has come true.
"My birthday is next Monday and what I wanted for my birthday was my innocence. That's all," Perren said.
After her experience, Perren said she also made a firm resolution: "I will not baby-sit for anybody again. Never again. Not even for my sister's kids."
It's just too easy to be accused of child abuse, she explained.