Ecclesia Case Is the Only Story in Town
In the brick courthouse on Main Street in this tiny industrial city, defense attorney Jack Bernstein spent Tuesday morning asking a local steelworker what he knew about a group that came here to escape the inner city of Los Angeles.
“I think I’ve heard too much,” the man confessed, and he was correct. Judge John Lowe politely excused him, saying that his services as a juror would not be needed in the manslaughter trial of four members of the Ecclesia Athletic Assn.
The previous afternoon, on the other side of town in another courtroom, Judge Robert Morgan listened to the plea of Ecclesia member Ruth Culmer, who wants the state to give her three children back to her. After four hours of emotional wrangling, he rejected her request.
Thus is the legal system in rural Clackamas County, Ore. slowly sorting out the complexities of the Ecclesia Athletic Assn. Six months have passed since 8-year-old Dayna Broussard allegedly was killed by her father’s followers, and 53 of her peers were taken away by state juvenile authorities.
During that time, Ecclesia has occupied the lives of all kinds of people in this county 10 miles southeast of Portland: deputy sheriffs, social workers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, clergy and just plain folk, who have watched the group and its leader, Eldridge Broussard Jr., with fascination.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in Oregon,” said Tim Lyons, one of four defense attorneys in the manslaughter trial. “This county has practically been brought to a standstill . . . . It’s hard to find a lawyer in this county who’s not involved in this case who does any kind of criminal or juvenile work.”
Said Bart Wilson, head of the Clackamas County branch of the Oregon Children’s Services Division: “This one tragic incident (Dayna’s death) has led to a rather enormous, complicated web. . . . It’s a pretty remarkable thing that started from one tragedy.”
Both the custody and manslaughter proceedings have touched on sensitive issues, including racial prejudice and freedom of religion. And in addition to being complex, they have been lengthy.
In the custody matters, Judge Morgan has granted the state long-term, although not permanent, custody of children belonging to six Ecclesia families, and must still conduct hearings on a dozen more.
Jury selection in the manslaughter trial, meanwhile, is now in its 10th week, making it among the longest in Oregon history. As of Tuesday evening, 12 jurors and two of three alternates had been selected, and lawyers were hoping the trial could begin next week.
The state alleges that defendants Willie Chambers, 35; Constance Jackson, 38; Brian Brinson, 31, and Frederick Doolittle, 28, beat the Broussard girl to death on Oct. 14 in a farmhouse where children and some adult members of the group had been staying. Broussard and other adult members of Ecclesia were in Los Angeles at the time of the death.
Dayna Broussard allegedly was whipped hundreds of times with a leather strap while her peers watched--a method of discipline authorities have alleged was applied to other Ecclesia children as well.
Juvenile authorities have said that many of the children still bear scars--both physical and emotional--from the beatings. With the exception of two who are living with relatives, all remain in foster care facilities in Oregon.
Although prosecutor Alfred French declines to discuss the case, he said in an interview two months ago that the Ecclesia children will be key witnesses at the trial.
Lawyers for the defendants have not disclosed their trial strategy, but have indicated that it may touch on cultural differences between their clients and middle-class whites, including philosophies on corporal punishment.
In rural Clackamas County, much about this group and its ill-fated plans to help ghetto kids through a mixture of religion and athletics seems different. Broussard and dozens of his followers first began visiting Oregon in the summer of 1986, saying that they intended to train children for the Olympics. Neighbors, however, became suspicious when they saw the children toiling in strawberry fields for long hours and engaging in what appeared to be military-style calisthenics and drills.
Some Oregonians have branded Ecclesia a cult--a hot topic in this state, where memories of the controversial Rajneesh commune are still fresh.
Cult or not, Ecclesia’s life style is certainly unconventional. For more than a decade, the group has lived communally in a converted bakery on Avalon Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles. Among other things, members share money, clothes and child-rearing duties.
Ecclesia is also a demographic oddity in Clackamas County, where the 1980 census found only 768 blacks among nearly 250,000 residents.
All of this makes picking a jury delicate business.
“You’re not going to get a jury of peers of these people in this state,” said defense lawyer Ron Gray. “Where are you going to find anybody who has any understanding of their background?”
So far, only one black potential juror has been interviewed, and he was not selected.
Gray said defense lawyers are trying to pick jurors who are liberal enough to sympathize with inner-city blacks, yet conservative enough to subscribe to Ecclesia’s spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child philosophy of discipline.
Thus, defense lawyers have been questioning potential jurors individually--and extensively--about issues that range from race to religion to whether their parents hit them when they were young.
“These people talk more about themselves than they probably ever will,” Gray said, “which is why we bring them in one at a time.”
Problem of Publicity
But more than the lengthy interviews, lawyers on both sides say it is the extensive publicity the case has received that makes picking a jury so time-consuming.
Of more than 180 potential jurors interviewed so far, only four have said that they had not heard of the group, according to Lyons, who said 80% of those interviewed have been rejected because they know too much about Ecclesia.
Of those, half are familiar with evidence that has been ruled inadmissible, such as allegations that the other Ecclesia children were beaten and that Dayna Broussard was being disciplined because she stole a piece of chicken to eat.
As one woman bluntly told lawyers, “You’d have to be a mushroom not to know anything about this case.”
The delays have frustrated juvenile authorities, who are worried about the effect that testifying will have on the children.
“We’re in this real unfortunate limbo,” said Wilson, the Children’s Services Division manager. “I think it’s in the kids’ best interest that we need to have this trial go forward so that they can have some clear resolutions in their own minds about what happened.”
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, relatives of the Ecclesia children are also anxious for the trial to move forward.
Mary Stanton, for example, has received approval for her grandchildren to live with her. But Oregon officials have said the youngsters may not be released because they are under subpoena to testify at the manslaughter trial.
“I’m getting really tired of waiting,” Stanton said. “I feel that this is important, that they know that they have family that cares for them.”
Dennis Culmer, who left Ecclesia and his wife, Ruth, two years ago, is hoping that he will receive similar approval to take custody of his children.
“I’m ready to take them whenever they let me have them,” he said.
Long Train Ride
Culmer took a 28-hour train ride from Los Angeles to Oregon to attend Monday’s hearing, which touched on issues equally as touchy as those that have been raised in the criminal trial.
State officials have said that they will not return children to Ecclesia parents who, like Ruth Culmer, continue to live with the group, because they believe that environment is dangerous for the children. Ruth Culmer contends that that is a violation of her right to religious freedom.
“I feel like (the state) is saying, ‘Either leave the church or you can’t have your children back,’ ” she said.
The judge, however, rejected that argument, saying that Ruth Culmer showed no disapproval of Ecclesia’s strict methods of punishing children.
Ecclesia’s legal morass has also taken a toll on its members. Although group members will not talk to the press, criminal lawyer Bernstein explained their situation this way: “It’s very difficult for them. They’re people from the inner city in Los Angeles and they’re placed in rural Oregon and they’re in the middle of a very complicated legal situation.”
This was apparent at the custody hearing Monday concerning the Culmer children. At one point, one group member stuck her hand through a door that was slightly ajar so that she could caress the face of one of the children. The woman kissed the child, who was then whisked away.