Credibility of Children Is the Key : McMartin Trial to Begin, 4 Years After First Arrest
Today, nearly four years after the first arrest in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, defendants Raymond Buckey, 29, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 60, will finally go on trial. The techniques of the therapists who first interviewed the children who now accuse them will be on trial as well.
The intervening years have seen the dropping of charges against five teachers, including the founder of the once-prestigious Manhattan Beach nursery school, the about-face of a prosecutor who now sides with the defense, allegations that critical evidence was suppressed and the deaths of several figures associated with the case, including the mother who triggered the massive investigation that led to the closing of seven South Bay preschools.
But the crucial issue remains unchanged: Did the Buckeys sexually abuse 14 youngsters, as the children and a physician who examined them testified during an 18-month preliminary hearing?
It is expected to take between one and two years to decide that. The seven-man, five-woman jury was selected over the last three months through lengthy examinations that included questions about each prospective juror’s own sexual history.
The prosecution is confident that it can persuade the jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the Buckeys are guilty. The defense, however, contends that the truth of what happened or didn’t happen has been forever obscured by the way in which the investigation was conducted and by the techniques used to interview hundreds of children who attended the school.
Transcripts of videotapes of those interviews have been sealed by the judge, but were obtained earlier by The Times.
“The success of our case depends on the believability of the children and the acceptance of our medical evidence,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin, who is prosecuting the Buckeys, along with Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, said last week.
Defense attorney Dean Gits, who represents Peggy McMartin Buckey, agreed:
“The issue will boil down to credibility, the children’s credibility,” he said, “their testimony against the reality that $5 million (the cost of investigating and prosecuting the case so far) produced nothing but favorable defense evidence, that is, not a single photograph, not a single satanic connection, despite hundreds of hours and scores of people working full time, digging up vacant lots and conducting scores of searches.”
The Buckeys, who face 101 counts of molestation and conspiracy, are accused of sexually abusing (including rape, sodomy, oral copulation, intercourse and fondling), photographing and drugging youngsters left in their care, forcing them to participate in satanic rituals, and keeping them silent by threatening to harm their parents if they told. They allegedly underlined those threats by mutilating and killing small animals.
Matronly, talkative Peggy McMartin Buckey, who is free on $500,000 bail, is the daughter of school founder Virginia McMartin and directed the school in recent years. Her quiet, slender son, Raymond Buckey, who also taught there, is being held without bail. Their attorneys won’t say whether they will testify in their own defense. At the conclusion of the lengthy preliminary hearing last year, Municipal Judge Aviva K. Bobb said she had found the children’s testimony “very credible.” She ordered all seven teachers originally charged to stand trial; a week later, however, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner dropped charges against five, calling the evidence against them “incredibly weak.”
The credibility of the children depends on what the 13 youngsters scheduled to testify say on the witness stand in coming months and on the strength of the medical evidence corroborating their stories.
But it also hinges on how the jury interprets what they said earlier in videotaped interviews conducted in late 1983 and early 1984 by therapists at Children’s Institute International, a Los Angeles child abuse diagnostic and treatment center whose methods have been criticized by both sides.
Defense attorneys view those videotapes as crucial to their case and say they will fight to have the jury see them, although the prosecution is expected to try to block their admission as evidence.
“Ray Buckey would be defenseless without those tapes,” said his attorney, Daniel Davis. “They show the method by which these children were goaded and prodded into making incriminating statements. . . .”
“The tapes are crucial evidence,” lawyer Gits said. “They are the genesis of the allegations made by the complaining witnesses, and they are a perfect example of how not to conduct an investigative interview. . . . They assume guilt as a given and that the function of the interview is not to find out what happened but to force or cajole the child into making statements which the interviewer has already determined has happened.”
Even Reiner characterized the tapes as “suggestive” in explaining why he decided to drop charges against some of the teachers. “The tapes corroborated the lack of corroboration,” he said in an interview last year. “It was a grievous mistake to in effect turn this (investigation) over to CII (Children’s Institute International).”
Transcripts of the controversial tapes prepared by the defense and sealed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders at the prosecution’s request last year show three therapists with little training or experience attempting to coax “disclosures” of sexual abuse from youngsters ranging in age from 4 to 10. Because of time pressures and personnel changes within the district attorney’s office, prosecutors would end up relying primarily on these tapes in determining the size, scope and strength of what was once called “the molestation case of the century.”
Mother Calls Police
It had begun in the fall of 1983 when a mother telephoned the Manhattan Beach Police Department to report that her 2 1/2-year-old son had been molested at the school by “Mr. Ray.” Doctors who examined him said they found physical signs that he had been sexually abused. Ray Buckey was arrested, then released for lack of evidence; he would be rearrested and charged with six others in March, 1984.
The Police Department sent a form letter to hundreds of parents of children who had attended the school, asking them to question their children about possible sexual abuse. Alarmed parents soon overwhelmed police, and the district attorney’s office stepped in.
Then-Deputy Dist. Atty. Jean Matusinka (now a Superior Court judge), who headed the child abuse unit, asked Kee MacFarlane of Children’s Institute International to evaluate several children. The two had been discussing for some time a joint project that would make use of videotaped interviews of children who may have been abused, thus avoiding subjecting the children to repeated interviews.
As word of the investigation spread, concerned parents flocked to Children’s Institute International for “diagnostic interviews” and the little-known center soon had a long waiting list. Eventually 400 children would be interviewed; 350 would be diagnosed as having been sexually abused.
The interviews were conducted by three “therapists”--an unlicensed social worker with a background in fine arts and a certificate in welding; a graduate student, and a temporary aide who had been an Orange County social worker.
Most of the interviews begin with the therapist asking the child to draw figures, then label body parts and identify children and teachers from class photos. When the child notices a microphone in the room, the interviewer explains that it leads to a “secret machine” that eats up “yucky secrets.” She says that puppets and naked, anatomically correct dolls can tell and show matters that the child may be too afraid to say himself.
The resulting interviews, lasting about 90 minutes each, sometimes appear suggestive. In one, for example, a 6-year-old boy repeatedly denies knowledge of any improprieties. Finally, therapist Shawn Connerly says, “Sometimes the teachers took their clothes off, and they (the children) got tickled other places. Can you guess where they might have gotten tickled?” The child shakes his Pac Man puppet’s head no.
“Well, take a wild guess,” Connerly urges. “Now remember you’re a super junior detective, and you’re supposed to try and help us. Where do you think they would have gotten touched, that would have been a yucky place?”
“Their vagina?” the boy asks hesitantly. (Connerly had explained the term to him a few minutes earlier).
“Their vagina! That’s right!”
In another, the same therapist leads a 7-year-old girl through a series of play activities on the floor--drawing, looking at pictures and acting out suggested scenarios of what might have happened.
Connerly tells the child that 183 other children have already told her “yucky secrets,” that the teachers are all “sick in the head” and deserve to be beaten up and that her “detective” help is needed in figuring out what happened at the school--or what “might” have happened.
At one point during the interview, Connerly asks the girl: “Think Mr. Ray might have done some of that touching? Do you think that’s possible?” When the girl shakes her Rags Raccoon puppet in a gesture of “no,” the therapist continues.
“Where do you think he would have touched her, Rags? Can you use your pointer and show where he would have touched her?” The child is encouraged to keep pointing to different parts of the body until she has included the girl doll’s private parts. “What part of Mr. Ray would have touched her?” the therapist asks repeatedly, and keeps going until the child points to the male doll’s genitals.
A year later, the girl, then 8, testified that she had been raped, photographed, tied up and placed in a dark closet by her teachers five years earlier.
However, there are also moments in those initial interviews in which the children volunteer, with little or no prompting, details about activities at McMartin several years earlier.
At one point, for example, when an 8-year-old boy insists that he kept his eyes closed and didn’t see anything, MacFarlane suggests: “You know what? Mr. Pac Man could pick up Mr. Ray (a doll) . . . and just show us what he snuck up and did on (child’s name) when (child’s name) wasn’t looking.”
The child picks up the Ray doll and puts its penis to the mouth of the doll representing himself. “Mr. Pac Man you helped us again,” MacFarlane tells him, then moves on to other areas of questioning.
Judge Pounders, after reviewing the videotapes, transcripts of interviews and other evidence recently when the defense alleged that prosecuting the Buckeys and not the other five teachers is unfair, said he found many of the children’s statements to be “spontaneous” and to have “the ring of truth,” although he acknowledged that contradictions exist.
The defense says it will show that those seemingly spontaneous statements come from children who also admit having been given information by their parents or other children. It will attempt to show that their confident testimony has evolved over time and been reinforced by means of repeated interviews, psychotherapy, discussions with other participants and treats or praise for each “yucky secret” they remembered.
A Gathering of Experts
Both sides are expected to summon experts to bolster or attack the truthfulness and suggestibility of very young children.
Interviews with a half dozen psychiatrists, psychologists and attorneys who work with abused children found a spectrum of opinion as to the effect of leading questions on the youngsters’ subsequent testimony. Most acknowledge that interviewing children is very different from questioning adults, but say that Children’s Institute International may have gone too far in suggesting answers to the children. They say that therapeutic techniques are inappropriate for investigative interviews in which the child needs to be drawn out without being fed information that could taint any resulting criminal case.
‘The Child Won’t Lie’
But they say they doubt those initial interviews will color what the children say at trial.
“Nobody can answer (with certainty) whether a lousy interview can taint a child’s subsequent account,” child psychiatrist Spencer Eth said. “My intuition is that the child won’t lie but might exaggerate. In that case he won’t stick to his story the next time around. He’ll waffle.”
Speaking of the Children’s Institute International tapes, he said: “I can’t believe long-term damage to their credibility was done. . . . Even if the interviews were as inept and lousy as the defense contends, it hardly matters two years down the road when you get to cross-examination, especially given corroborative evidence such as nightmares and behavior changes and other lines of evidence pointing to a defendant’s guilt.”
Veteran child abuse prosecutor Kenneth Freeman, on leave from the district attorney’s office to develop better ways of handling child abuse cases for the U.S. Department of Justice, said:
“No amount of questioning can make a child believe what he doesn’t believe or really remember about anything significant in his life. Regardless of past questioning, jurors will learn the truth when they hear the children’s entire testimony, during which details and spontaneous answers will convey the flavor of what each child actually experienced.”
For its part, Children’s Institute defends its methods. Director Mary Emmons says the center didn’t “invent” the techniques used with the McMartin children, simply videotaped its procedures and created a one-stop center where children could be evaluated both medically and psychologically.
MacFarlane said that the “misuse” of the videotapes by the defense has led her to videotape less and rely more on one-way mirrors to allow parents to witness their children’s disclosures.
“Videotapes put your ass on the line and you are all going to get to probably hear that when they take me apart on them,” she said in a speech on interviewing techniques. “But I still believe in them. I think that they can see that questions are leading and in my opinion need to be leading in this field. I think that this is not a court of law. This is something that’s been inside for a long time and I think that saying to a 4-year-old, ‘What, if anything, unpleasant ever happened to you between the years 1981 to 1983?’ is not going to get you anything.”
The second crucial aspect of the case is the medical evidence corroborating the children’s accounts. During the preliminary hearing, pediatrician Astrid Heger testified that she found physical signs of abuse in most of the children. Defense attorneys suggested that the alleged injuries she found were either normal body variations or the result of masturbation, hard stools, or accidental falls onto a picket fence.
Family Tension Returns
Last week, the defense lost a bid to exclude her findings on grounds that her diagnostic methods are not generally accepted as reliable in the scientific community. However, the prosecution must still qualify Heger as a child sexual abuse expert before the jury will be allowed to hear her testimony.
Families gearing up to testify, some for the third time, say they are getting tense again, just when they thought their lives were back to normal, but that they are determined to see to a conclusion the events that they put into motion. They believe their children, and they believe that in some ways confronting the teachers they say abused them is therapeutic.
“My son wanted to testify and still does,” one mother said. “He feels if he tells the truth it might help Ray be punished. I hope he’s right.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.