McMartin Trial Costly in Money, Time, Patience
The case gives the judge nightmares, and at the rate things are going he’ll be having them for months to come.
The McMartin Pre-School molestation trial enters its third year this week, becoming the longest criminal proceeding in U.S. history. The sometimes surreal, $15-million case has disrupted the lives not only of the alleged victims and perpetrators but that of their families, their lawyers, the jurors and witnesses as well.
So much so that the judge commented in court recently that it has “poisoned” everyone who has come into contact with it and indirectly contributed to three deaths, including that of the mother whose report to the Manhattan Beach police about her 2 1/2-year-old son triggered the investigation more than five years ago.
“I think a lot of the criticism that has been leveled at us is understandable but without full knowledge of what’s going on here,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders said in a rare interview in his chambers last week. “Every day I have tried to cut the length of this trial. . . . I want the public to know that I’m doing it (conducting the proceedings) from a different point of view (than the litigants).
Working at Cross Purposes
“I’m trying to maintain a fair trial, but one that’s economical--and I haven’t been successful,” he acknowledged. “The two work against each other--being fair and being economical.”
The trial often moves at a tediously slow pace as each side attempts to present the most minute scrap of evidence. The attorneys drone on in a nearly empty courtroom where spectators once spilled into the aisles. The remaining jurors bring bag lunches and books for the long periods they must endure in the jury room while the lawyers argue points of law.
So far, the trial has taken up 304 court days, heard from 99 witnesses, amassed 50,000 pages of transcripts and 845 exhibits. With the remaining witnesses, a summer vacation, and time allowed for rebuttal, surebuttal, closing arguments and jury deliberations, a verdict may not be reached before next year.
The publicity surrounding the record-breaking 18-month preliminary hearing and the start of the trial in 1987 made most of the allegations familiar to the public long before they were presented to the jury. Now only a half dozen regulars take their places behind the rail--a couple of writers, an investigator taking notes for a civil suit and, now and then, a reporter checking to see if anything new is happening in what was once billed as the most massive sex abuse case in history.
The jurors, most of whom now dress in jeans and recently had to be asked by the judge to stop bringing drinks into the jury box (“I’m expecting popcorn next,” he quipped), no longer take notes and appear increasingly bored. Special seats were installed for their comfort, but there are days when the air conditioning breaks down, the elevators conk out, the plumbing doesn’t work, and tensions run high in the downtown Criminal Courts Building.
Recently, for example, columns of ominous-looking words were found scrawled on the blackboard in the jury room: “hung jury,” “hangman,” “wasted” and "$10 a day” (the amount each juror is paid by the county). Questioned individually, two jurors admitted that they had been kidding around with suggestions for personalized license plates. Pounders said he was convinced it was in jest--but that it reflected the jury’s frustration that their lives have been on hold since the trial began in April, 1987.
The case had been whittled down from 135 counts and seven defendants ordered to stand trial after a preliminary hearing to 65 counts and two defendants--Raymond Buckey, 30, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 62, by the time it came to trial. The Buckeys, who are free on bail, are charged with sexually abusing 11 youngsters who attended their family run Manhattan Beach nursery school and, if convicted, face life in prison.
After 2 1/2 months of painstaking jury selection, the prosecution presented 14 months of testimony from parents, medical experts, a social worker who interviewed hundreds of McMartin children, investigators and even archeologists who supervised a dig for animal remains.
Nine children testified that they had been raped, sodomized or forced to participate in oral copulation by the Buckeys. They said they had been photographed during “naked games,” taken on bizarre field trips that included satanic-like rituals and animal sacrifices, and threatened with death by Raymond Buckey.
For six months the defense has presented testimony from psychologists, three former defendants and other teachers at the school, and owners or employees of a grocery, church, farm and car wash where some of the alleged molestations occurred. All have contradicted the children’s accounts.
Pounders, who as a deputy attorney general once lost a case after failing to present a seemingly minor piece of evidence, says he empathizes with both sides’ desire to leave no stone unturned.
“But this is not such an unusual case, and it’s bleeding the system to death,” he said. “Part of it is the news media attention--it’s easier to lose a case if nobody knows about it. One side is going to be devastated and the other side’s future is made.”
The prosecution consists of Deputy Dist. Attys. Lael Rubin, a former high school English teacher and Roger Gunson, former head of the district attorney’s sexual crimes unit. The defense attorneys are Dean Gits, a former public defender who represents Peggy McMartin Buckey, and Danny Davis, a relative unknown, who represents her son. The court-appointed defense team is paid an average of $100,000 a month by the county.
The animosity between sides is such that, unlike other lawyers who socialize outside court, “I can’t imagine them ever having drinks together,” Pounders said.
Initially, Pounders saw no need to apply brakes to the case, although he cautioned both sides to use their time efficiently. As the jury began dwindling, however, the judge became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a mistrial for lack of a full jury. Four of the 12 jurors and six alternates have been excused--two for medical reasons, one because of career difficulties posed by the case’s length and a fourth who was deemed inattentive to testimony. Last week, a fifth juror told the judge he may ask to be excused to seek employment if he is laid off by his company.
“The possibility of a mistrial has about reached a stage of being a probability. It’s a death struggle for me as far as I’m concerned,” Pounders said, explaining why he earlier told Davis he intends to eliminate non-essential defense witnesses and get the case to an intact jury “even if it’s over your dead body.”
“I throw everything I have into the case,” Pounders said later. “If I put the stress on him and he has a heart attack or he puts the stress on me and I have a heart attack, that’s the way it’s going to be. . . .”
The low point in the trial for Pounders came last week, he said, when he realized that all the subtle techniques he had used to try to get both sides to move swiftly had failed.
So, to shorten the trial, he eliminated eight prospective witnesses from the defense roster and said he will require detailed offers of proof before he allows testimony from any but five remaining critical witnesses--the defendants themselves, two former defendants who taught at the school and a physician needed to rebut extensive medical evidence presented by the prosecution.
His appellate experience in the state attorney general’s office makes him confident that such steps will not result in a reversal if the defendants are convicted, although he said he is also sure he has made mistakes during the marathon trial.
“I have nightmares,” Pounders said, primarily about the specter of a mistrial. He said the pressures and time demands of the McMartin case and his regular court calendar have destroyed all semblance of a normal life with his wife of 18 years and their three children. Pounders said that while he has tried to minimize the strain on everyone involved in the trial, “the victims have to be the children regardless of the truth of the allegations.”
And when it is all over? “All the time and money and effort have to go to some purpose. Society, I hope, will be better off, whether it’s an increased awareness or punishment of offenders. Something good has to come out of all this.”
“Everything I do is focused on this case,” he said, admitting that he takes out his irritability on his family when things in court aren’t going well. He say he tries to relieve the pressure by attending church, jogging, lifting weights and cheering for the Dodgers.
“I became an avid Dodger fan last year,” he said. “Their success has given me a kind of a voyeur’s success at life--in other words, they struggled against what seemed to be insurmountable odds and I feel like I’m doing the same thing. So their success gives me hope.”
Asked whether he sees himself as “the Tommy Lasorda of the McMartin trial,” he laughed. “Yes, and I keep looking for a Kirk Gibson to get me out of this mess.”