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Case Illustrates Flaws in Child Abuse Trials : Courts: Dale Akiki’s acquittal was a stinging rebuke to the system that arrested and tried him. Some question the prominence of social workers and therapists in obtaining testimony.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In May, 1991, the newly married Dale Akiki boarded a bus that would take him from his job at a Navy supply depot to a stop near his home, where his wife was waiting. As he stepped off the bus, he vividly remembers someone shouting.

“You’re under arrest!”

Akiki’s life--already burdened by a rare genetic disorder--would soon enter a far more grueling phase. Charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse and kidnaping, he spent the next 2 1/2 years in San Diego County Jail.

In a stunning rebuke to the system that arrested and tried him, Akiki was acquitted Nov. 19 by a jury that rendered a verdict in the seven-month trial after deliberating 6 3/4 hours. Said juror David Fava: “It seemed like a witch hunt to me.”

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Dubbed “San Diego’s McMartin” by some, from the beginning the case was a tale of contradictions. At its center, though, lies the clash of two groups often victimized by the very legal system that promises to safeguard their rights: children and the developmentally disabled. Moreover, it reflected the controversy over the increasingly prominent role of social workers and therapists in child abuse trials and the bizarre legal puzzle presented by undocumented charges of ritual abuse.

Akiki’s trial put all those contradictions in high relief. It pitted Akiki, 36, against nine children who accused him of bludgeoning live animals and drinking their blood as part of his satanic repertoire. One boy even accused Akiki of murdering a baby.

The children alleged that these acts occurred in a church nursery school where Akiki and his wife worked as volunteer sitters on Sundays--right down the hall from where their parents were worshiping as part of the charismatic congregation at Faith Chapel in Spring Valley.

Although there was no physical evidence against him, Akiki was denied bail on five occasions. During his 30 months behind bars, Akiki was protected from harm by sheriff’s deputies and members of the notorious Syndo Mob street gang. After a verdict that came so quickly it stunned even Akiki, he sped away in a waiting limousine--paid for by the deputies who guarded his cell.

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“Merely the accusation of child abuse can destroy a person’s life,” said Public Defender Kathleen Coyne, who represented Akiki. “But here you have a man who has extreme physical manifestations of a terrible disease. I find that all of that taken together poses an injustice of considerable magnitude.”

Akiki’s condition--a debilitating disease known as Noonan’s syndrome--has left him with droopy eyelids, a concave chest, club feet and wide ears that sag almost to the base of his broad neck. His enlarged head--the result of hydrocephalus, or water on the brain--rests under a mane of woolly hair.

Doctors once told Akiki’s family that he would probably not live to adulthood. In addition to physical impairments that have required 13 corrective surgeries, Akiki is a person of limited intelligence; Coyne said his IQ is between 89 and 93.

Evidence presented during the trial showed that the Faith Chapel children were often terrified of Akiki’s appearance and that mothers believed he was an inappropriate choice to baby-sit preschoolers--before any allegation had surfaced.

When allegations did surface, they took on a bizarre nature.

Witnesses said Akiki conspired with his wife and another sitter to subject the children to rituals of mayhem, involving urine, feces, water torture and animal mutilation--including the slaughter of an elephant, a giraffe and a rabbit.

They accused him of dunking the children in toilets and threatening them with guns, knives and death should they report the abuse to elders. His wife and the other sitter were accused of child abuse but never charged and will not be tried, officials said last week.

Despite his exoneration, Akiki’s supporters say the system failed him by trying him in the first place. His supporters have called for the resignation of San Diego County Dist. Atty. Ed Miller and for a state and federal investigation.

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Members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors called last week for revamping the way therapists are used in determining the truth in child-abuse investigations.

Coyne charged that therapists were allowed to “subvert” the role of law enforcement and San Diego County sheriff’s deputies “rubber-stamped” the therapists’ findings, and failed to produce even a shred of physical evidence.

Moments after the verdict, Miller, 67, who became district attorney in 1971, defended his prosecutorial team but has since promised an internal review of the case, which drew national attention and became a running local drama that lifted Akiki to the status of a cause celebre .

Among Miller’s critics are Carol Hopkins, deputy forewoman of the San Diego County Grand Jury in 1991-92, who said no surgical technique exists that can fix “the miscarriage of justice” perpetrated against not only Akiki but also the children named as victims.

“The children were placed with therapists, who believed something had happened, set about to prove something had happened and created in the children the belief that something had happened,” Hopkins said. “But nothing ever happened at all.”

Coyne said the involvement of children not only exposes them to the risk of lasting damage, it can unfairly--and thus unjustly--prejudice a defendant’s case.

“The presumption is that if the courts make it easy for the children to speak, what emerges will automatically be the truth. I’m not saying that children willfully do lie, but children can also be easily misled and easily confused, and as we proved in our case,” she said.

Experts agree that children who have been abused often do not immediately disclose details of the crime and that suggestive techniques, such as leading questions, may be necessary to aid them in reporting the abuse.

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Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, said the problem with leading questions is that children who have not been abused may make false disclosures that propel a case to trial.

Ceci recently completed a study showing that preschool-age children exposed to repeated suggestive questioning can fabricate stories about events that never occurred. The results of the study were referred to during the Akiki trial.

Testimony indicated that the case grew from a comment made by a 4-year-old girl after Akiki, his wife and another volunteer sitter placed her in a “timeout” chair for calling another child “pee-pee and poo-poo face.”

Witnesses said the girl later told her mother: “He (Akiki) showed me him’s penis.” The comment launched an investigation involving sheriff’s deputies, teams of social workers and therapists and, finally, members of the district attorney’s office.

Interviewed at his in-laws’ home last week, Akiki said he holds no bitterness toward the children, whom he sees as fellow victims.

“I don’t have anything against the kids. I don’t blame them whatsoever,” he said. “But I do feel anger against the therapists and the (parents). I feel sorry for the kids, because I know what they had to go through.”

In many cases, therapists are called in to evaluate children and to report what they disclose as evidence. In Akiki’s case, Coyne said, social workers and marriage and family counselors were used instead of clinical psychologists, whose training is more advanced.

Critics of how child abuse cases are prosecuted view the reliance of therapists as problematic, saying that the tendency to elevate their findings to undisputed truth can corrupt the process of checks and balances inherent in the legal system.

But Lenore Terr, a San Francisco psychiatrist who studied the child victims of the Chowchilla bus kidnaping in 1976 and testified for the prosecution in the Akiki case, said children who are victims of a horrible event often show symptoms of “psychic trauma.”

Commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder, Terr said such trauma can be seen in certain behaviors and in the way children play. Therapists involved in the Akiki case admitted relying heavily on Terr’s writings.

One therapist testified that when a child dunked a doll in a bucket of water, she interpreted that as evidence that the child had endured a similar experience. Akiki was accused of dunking a child’s head in the toilet.

After Akiki’s arrest, Hopkins’ grand jury panel investigated child abuse cases across the country, beginning with the 1987 McMartin Pre-School case, which opened with seven defendants charged with 115 counts of child abuse and ended three years later without a conviction.

Hopkins said that out of 132 cases her group studied at length, acquittals and overturned convictions far outweighed the number of suspects sent to prison. But Hopkins referred primarily to cases involving reports of ritual abuse.

The vast majority of child abuse cases that do not involve charges of ritual abuse end in convictions, according to public defender Coyne. Many defendants confess or tangible evidence, such as semen samples or videotapes, augment verbal testimony and convictions are won.

Like Hopkins, Coyne said she finds the widespread allegations of so-called satanic ritual abuse disturbing. Such charges surfaced in the McMartin case and repeatedly in the Akiki trial.

Kenneth Lanning, the FBI’s leading authority on child abuse, testified during the Akiki trial that after 10 years of trying to determine the veracity of claims, he has found no evidence that ritual abuse exists.

Noted Newport Beach psychiatrist Park Dietz also testified for the prosecution but under cross-examination said he knew of no case in the country where allegations of ritual abuse turned out to be true.

Until recently, San Diego County funded a Ritual Abuse Task Force, whose members included Akiki’s chief prosecutor, Mary Avery. Also on the task force was Mary Goodall, the wife of wealthy businessman Jack Goodall, who figured prominently in the case against Akiki.

At a crucial point in the case, the Goodalls, former members of the Faith Chapel congregation, met privately with Dist. Atty. Miller. The meeting prompted Akiki’s attorneys to allege a conflict of interest on the part of Avery and Miller--motions that the court denied.

Witnesses testified that Miller appointed a prosecutor, Sally Penso, who investigated the case and failed to bring charges. After a meeting with the Goodalls, he gave the case to Avery, the founder of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation.

Jack Goodall, owner of Foodmaker, Inc., the parent company of the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain and part owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team, is board chairman of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation and its biggest contributor. Miller serves as an honorary board member.

Sources close to Akiki say he is contemplating a lawsuit against San Diego County and possibly against the Goodalls. Friends say Hollywood has been calling, with more than one movie studio--and actor James Woods--expressing interest in Akiki’s life story.

Perhaps the most bizarre accusation made during the trial came when a boy testified that Akiki slaughtered an elephant, which the boy said was both “real” and “not real.” Other children testified that Akiki killed a giraffe and a rabbit in the nursery school and drank their blood to frighten them into silence.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Williams even stabbed a toy bunny with a toy knife as a way of illustrating a charge that prosecutors never seemed to doubt.

Jurors said later that not only did they not believe the children, they did not think that the children believed themselves.

The children’s testimony was often contradictory, although the investigation moved on, apparently undeterred by the weak links in the case.

A 7-year-old boy testified that Akiki, his wife and the female co-worker all touched him on his private parts, but when first interviewed on videotape in August, 1989, he repeatedly denied being abused.

Questioned again a month later, he said Akiki “showed me his bottom.” A girl testified that she did not know that “Mr. Dale” did bad things to kids until her mother and a therapist told her he did--a remark Coyne said paved the way for acquittal.

Critics say the nine children should never have been subjected to courtroom interrogation. But Coyne said that had the children been forced to testify at Akiki’s preliminary hearing, the case would not have reached trial, thus sparing enormous expense--and an innocent man.

She blames Proposition 115, which passed in 1990, for preventing the children from testifying during the preliminary phase. Among other things, Proposition 115 permits hearsay evidence during preliminary hearings.

Coyne said the case should never have gone to court. Once it did, the hearsay evidence of the children was merely read into the court record with no opportunity for cross-examination.

“For four years, nobody got to cross-examine those children,” said Coyne, who believes that the Akiki case graphically demonstrates the need for reform. “Had they been cross-examined in a preliminary hearing, a judge would have stopped it right there.

“If I were the good citizens of California, I’d be scared that I could be held in custody without facing my accuser for months--or, in Dale’s case, for years. This case is illustrative of a lot that is wrong with child abuse cases.”

Akiki said the system can improve only “by making sure you get all the facts before you accuse somebody.”

“Otherwise, it messes up both sides. It hurt those kids as much as it did me. I’m just glad it’s over . . . so my wife and I can get on with our lives. You can’t imagine how rough it’s been.”


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