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6 Years Later, McMartin Case Goes to Jury : Trial: The first arrest occurred in 1983 and it could take months yet for the panel to render verdicts in the molestation case. It has been the longest and costliest criminal proceeding in history.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six years after the first arrest in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, 12 jurors--10 of whom are parents themselves--gathered around an eight-sided table Thursday to render judgment on the school’s director and her son, accused of sexually abusing 11 children.

The process could take months. It requires sifting through the testimony of 124 witnesses compiled over a 2 1/2-year period and weighing the painful, sometimes bizarre, accounts given by the children against the defense’s appeal to common sense and the defendants’ claim of innocence.

“It seems like a historic moment, but I’m too tired to enjoy it,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders said with a sigh after the jurors adjourned to select a foreman and begin deliberations.

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Pounders had expressed fears repeatedly that he would have to declare a mistrial, as health and job problems forced him to release six of the original 18 regulars and alternates. By the end, the strain on the judge, the jury and the litigants had become visible.

“All of the jurors are present on a day I think you may have felt would never arrive,” he told the panel as it assembled for final instructions. “But it has, and as of today, we’ll be turning the baton over to you . . . and we will sit back and watch.”

The judge then read 32 pages of jury instructions, some of which addressed children’s testimony specifically:

“Although, because of age and level of cognitive development, a child may perform differently as a witness from an adult, that does not mean that a child is any more or less credible a witness than an adult,” he instructed. “You should not discount or distrust the testimony of a child solely because he or she is a child, nor should you believe such testimony solely because he or she is a child.”

When Pounders finished, the eight-man, four-woman panel retired to the 18-by-21-foot jury room, where it will decide the guilt or innocence of defendants Ray Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey.

Participants in the trial have said privately that the jurors’ lack of attention in recent days indicates they may have made up their minds already--although not necessarily in unanimity.

Jurors will not be sequestered, but will be watched by a bailiff while in the courthouse and escorted to and from lunch. Having been advised by Pounders to keep working when things are going well--and to take frequent breaks or go home early when impasses occur--the panelists will set their own daily schedule.

The jury is to turn in a verdict on each of the 65 counts as it is reached. The verdicts will be sealed and either read at intervals or when all have been completed, Pounders said.

In the $15-million case--the longest and costliest criminal proceeding in history--Ray Buckey, 31, faces 52 counts of molestation involving 11 youngsters who attended his family’s nursery school in Manhattan Beach. His mother, Peggy Buckey, 62, is charged with 12 counts of molestation involving four children. Both are charged with a single shared count of conspiracy.

If convicted on all counts, both could be sentenced to life in prison.

In its simplest form, the case now boils down to a question of whether the jury believes the testimony of the alleged victims, their parents, and physicians who examined them, or that of the defendants and other former teachers at the school.

The prosecution contends that the children were raped, sodomized, forced to participate in oral copulation, play “naked games,” engage in pornographic photo sessions and satanic rituals, and were silenced by threats underscored by animal mutilation.

The defense maintains that the children were programmed by therapists to believe something bad had happened to them, that their stories defy common sense, and that the medical evidence is unreliable and perhaps fabricated.

The case began in August, 1983, when the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old called Manhattan Beach police after her son complained of rectal pain and she noticed he had a red bottom and implicated “Mr. Ray.” Two physicians found medical evidence indicating he had been sodomized.

Ray Buckey was arrested and released, but the investigation continued--eventually widening to include seven teachers at the prestigious seaside school.

In March, 1984, the seven teachers, including elderly school founder and family matriarch Virginia McMartin, were indicted by a county grand jury on 115 counts. That indictment was superseded by a 208-count complaint two months later.

After an 18-month preliminary hearing, all seven were ordered to stand trial on 135 counts. But a week after the hearing ended, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner dropped charges against five defendants, citing “incredibly weak evidence.”

The trial began in April, 1987, with 100 counts against Ray Buckey and his mother; the prosecution ultimately presented evidence on 65 counts.

Throughout, the proceedings were marked by bizarre twists and turns: unforeseen delays, the capitulation of a prosecutor to the defense, the alcohol-related death of the young mother who triggered the case, the suicide of a defense investigator on the eve of his testimony, and the accidental drug overdose of an uncharged suspect that occurred after several McMartin children implicated him.

Courtroom argument was so heated and character attacks so hostile that the judge commented several times that the case had “poisoned” everyone it had touched.

In the end, it became a race against time, with Pounders prodding the attorneys to wrap up testimony while there were still enough jurors left to deliberate.


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