A parent in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case slandered three former teachers when he charged on national television that they participated in satanic rituals and lewd acts at the school, a Los Angeles judge ruled Tuesday.
But Superior Court Judge G. Keith Wisot awarded the teachers only $1 each, saying that they had not proved that their reputations were damaged or that parent Robert Currie set out to cause them emotional distress.
"It is understandable that a parent would feel rage about (the issue) of sexual abuse, but it doesn't justify inaccuracy and defamation," said Wisot, ruling in a civil trial completed in less than a day. "However, the proof does not rise to punitive damages." The plaintiffs--preschool founder Virginia McMartin, her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey and granddaughter Peggy Ann Buckey--had asked for at least $500,000 each.
Virginia McMartin, 84, wheelchair-bound and dressed in pink rosebud house slippers and a dark blue flowered dress, said in a corridor after the decision, "I got what I wanted--the truth to come out. I didn't care a snip about the money. I wanted him to shut up."
Currie declined to comment. But his attorney, John C. Taylor, said the decision was significant because the judge ruled only on "peripheral" accusations, not on Currie's allegation that his children had been molested while attending the preschool.
"The judge chose his words very carefully . . . he didn't say it didn't happen," Taylor said. "It is a sad ending to a frustrated group, the McMartins. They were trying to get a judicial determination that children were not molested at their school. They didn't get it here."
Taylor had argued that seven years of publicity from a variety of sources, including other parents, made the McMartins "slander-proof" because they were public figures. He said he may appeal on that basis.
The courtroom scene seemed like a step back in time, except that this time the McMartins were sitting in the plaintiffs' seats instead of at the defense table.
But Tuesday's trial was a much-abbreviated version of the sensational criminal case that became the costliest and longest-running such proceeding in history. The case began in 1984 with a 115-count indictment against seven teachers at the Manhattan Beach school. The seven were bound over for trial, but charges were later dropped against five of them, including Peggy Ann Buckey and Virginia McMartin. Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son, Ray Buckey, were acquitted in January, 1990, of 40 counts of molestation. He was retried on eight counts, but a mistrial was declared when the second jury deadlocked.
At Tuesday's proceedings, Virginia McMartin sat in her wheelchair at the witness stand and testified that she had never stripped her blouse to the waist in front of children as alleged by Currie on television.
"It was such an awful thing to say against an old lady . . . and I haven't even owned a blouse since 1940," she testified.
A few minutes later, Currie broke down in tears twice on the witness stand as he alleged that his children had been raped and sodomized while attending the school.
Currie testified that he had made statements on television that he saw Peggy Martin Buckey hoist her muumuu up to her waist in a doorway outside a bathroom, that children said Virginia stripped to the waist, and that there was satanic worship.
He said he quit his job and spent almost all of his time "seeking the truth," including renting a backhoe to dig up the school grounds in search of tunnels and animal remains. He testified he believed that molestations had taken place because of statements by prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, children and parents.
"Who will speak for the children if not their parents? Who will speak against the system if not someone not intimidated by the system?" Taylor said in closing remarks.
Wisot, however, said there was no proof in this trial that some of the things said by Currie had occurred. He said there were exaggerations and that Currie was negligent for not verifying what he had heard from others.