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On View : The Longest Trial : HBO MOVIE PACKS THE SEVEN YEARS OF L.A.'S MCMARTIN PRE-SCHOOL CASE INTO TWO HOURS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) got heated reactions from people when he told them the title of his latest project, “Indictment: The McMartin Trial.” The docudrama chronicling the controversial, highly publicized McMartin Pre-School case of the ‘80s premieres Saturday on HBO.

“When the woman who cuts my hair said, ‘What are you are you doing next?,’ I said, ‘I’m doing the McMartin case.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re not. Geez. Why do you want to do something like that? They were horrible.’ When I told my business manager that I was going to do this HBO movie on the McMartin case, he said, ‘Why do you want to rake all that horrible stuff up? Why don’t you leave it dead and buried?’ ”

The more the Englishman talked with people, the more he realized no one knew the complete facts behind the child-molestation trial involving the Manhattan Beach school’s founder Virginia McMartin; her daughter, school director Peggy McMartin Buckey, and grandson Ray Buckey, who was a teacher at the school.

The case began in 1984 with a 115-count indictment against seven teachers at the school. The seven were bound over for trial, but charges were later dropped against five of them, including Virginia McMartin and granddaughter Peggy Ann Buckey. Peggy McMartin Buckey and 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. By then, Ray Buckey had spent more than five years in jail without bail. The cost of the combined trial, the longest and most expensive ever held, totaled more than $16 million.

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“They don’t know the defendants were actually not guilty,” Jackson says during a break in the filming at a studio in Downtown Los Angeles. “That they were acquitted on most of the charges and the jury actually said there is nothing we can commit to in the end. What I think (the movie) will say is, focus on what actually happened. You may come to this with your preconceptions that these were horrible, satanic monsters. but then just watch as the story unfolds and see if you still feel that way at the end.”

Written by Abby Mann (“Judgment at Nuremberg”), “Indictment” stars Henry Thomas (“E.T.”) as Ray Buckey; Shirley Knight as Peggy McMartin Buckey; Sada Thompson as Virginia McMartin; James Woods as Ray Buckey’s attorney, Danny Davis, and Mercedes Ruehl as deputy district attorney and chief prosecutor Lael Rubin. Lolita Davidovich portrays Kee MacFarlane, the unlicensed social worker who was responsible for interviewing or supervising the interviewing of the alleged pre-school victims. Oliver Stone is executive producer.

Jackson is thrilled that Thomas, now 23, is playing Ray Buckey. “Don’t you think Henry Thomas is wonderful casting--from the personification of childlike innocence in ‘E.T.’ to the man accused of perverting that and sullying that innocence?,” he asks. “He’s one of the few actors who, without doing very much with his face, suggests great depths underneath.”

“It’s an interesting departure for me as an actor,” acknowledges Thomas, who played Brad Pitt’s clean-cut young brother in the 1994 hit “Legends of the Fall.”

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“This guy interested me ... Even today when you ask people if they know who Ray Buckey is they say, ‘Wasn’t he a murderer?’ Didn’t he get the death sentence?’ ”

To prepare for the role, Thomas watched videotapes of Buckey and read articles on the trial. “It was a strange character to occupy,” Thomas acknowledges. “He was basically kind of like a normal average guy who basically did average things in the privacy of his own home. Suddenly, with the allegations in the media and everything, he was turned into something of a freak.”

Woods, whose production company is one of the film’s production entities, believes it is his moral obligation to do “Indictment.”

“This is what God put me on Earth to do--these kinds of movies,” the Emmy winner says firmly. An autographed picture of Robert Shapiro, one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys, is prominently displayed on the counter behind the sofa in Woods’ trailer. “This story has to be told. The press is out of hand.”

Woods says he’s frequently been asked to comment on the McMartins’ guilt or innocence. “It’s probably one of the most irrelevant questions you can ask about this story,” says Woods, who is highly critical of press coverage of the case. “The relevance of their guilt is not as important as the deprivation of due process that happened in that case to an extent that’s probably unparalleled in American history.”

The McMartins, he continues, “were literally convicted by the press, who acted without any solid information, promoted a thesis that was completely inaccurate and unfounded. They did not bother to do research. These people were deprived of their life, their liberty and their pursuit of happiness to such an extraordinary extent that it’s overwhelming. Nobody bothered to ask what their constitutional rights were. Nobody bothered to protect them except for their defense attorneys, who were fighting a tidal wave of press-induced hysteria.”

“Indictment: The McMartin Trial” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.


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