A Superior Court jury concluded a 7 1/2-month trial Friday by acquitting a former nursery school volunteer of 35 counts of child abuse and kidnaping that had kept him jailed without bail for 2 1/2 years.
With family members and friends cheering behind him, Dale Akiki, 36, wept as the clerk announced the jury’s findings of not guilty to all felony and misdemeanor counts stemming from alleged incidents at a local church in 1988 and 1989.
Nearly 170 witnesses testified during Akiki’s trial--the longest in San Diego history--which ended after only seven hours of jury deliberation. “I just want to go home, I just want to go home,” Akiki said in leaving San Diego County Jail.
Akiki appeared stunned by how quickly the verdicts came. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a shock.” He thanked sheriff’s deputies, who for 30 months shielded him from abuse by other prisoners. “They helped me out,” he said. “They protected me.”
Akiki was surrounded by television cameras as he boarded a waiting limousine.
The case drew widespread attention--and sympathy--partly because of Akiki’s appearance. The victim of a rare genetic disorder called Noonan’s syndrome, he suffers from club feet, a concave chest and droopy eyelids. He has undergone 19 surgeries since childhood.
His trial quickly became a cause celebre for critics of the criminal justice system, with many saying that it was one of hundreds of child abuse cases nationwide culminating in a lengthy and costly prosecution and ending with exoneration of the defendant.
Jurors deliberated for two hours Thursday and less than five hours Friday, with most saying afterward that they never believed the nine children who testified, or that the children even believed what they said in court.
Several on the panel sided with Akiki’s attorneys, public defenders Kathleen Coyne and Susan Clemens, who tried to show that Akiki’s alleged victims--nine boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 5--had been systematically brainwashed by parents and therapists.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Avery, the lead prosecutor, disputed such claims.
“The whole idea of contamination and suggestibility just does not account for the major behavior changes that occurred (in the children) while they were in Dale Akiki’s (nursery school) class,” she said, referring to such incidents as bed-wetting and nightmares.
Witnesses accused Akiki of sexually molesting and terrorizing children at Faith Chapel charismatic church in Spring Valley by hanging them upside-down from a chandelier, dunking them in toilets and making them drink the blood of animals in ritualistic ceremonies.
Prosecutors were unable to produce any physical evidence to support the charges.
Some children said Akiki brought an elephant and a giraffe to class, killing them both as a way of warning his pupils not to reveal his crimes.
“This wasn’t a case of proving who did it. This was a case of proving that it never happened at all,” said Carol Hopkins, deputy forewoman of the San Diego County Grand Jury in 1991-92, who became one of Akiki’s defenders.
Hopkins is one of many calling for the ouster of Dist. Atty. Ed Miller, whom critics accuse of succumbing to the wishes of one of the city’s most prominent businessmen in trying Akiki.
Defense attorneys showed that a deputy prosecutor who initially investigated the case failed to bring charges. And witnesses testified that after the intervention of Jackson R. Goodall Jr.--the owner of Foodmaker, Inc., the parent company of the Jack in the Box--Miller assigned a new prosecutor.
He picked Avery, founder of San Diego’s Child Abuse Prevention Foundation. Goodall has been the largest contributor to the organization and is chairmen of its board.
Miller has blasted the insinuation of a breach of ethics and staunchly defended his prosecution, which critics say has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
“The contact I had with members of the public had absolutely no influence on me whatsoever,” Miller said. “I am especially upset about any suggestion at all that this was not handled in a professional manner.”
Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this story.