When 'cowboy justice' ruled


Sean Penn, who lends his name, voice and political aura to "Witch Hunt," dedicates the documentary to the thousands of Americans wrongfully imprisoned today.

It's a well-meaning but rather frustrating dedication. The eight Bakersfield parents featured in "Witch Hunt," six wrongfully and horrifically convicted in the 1980s of multiple counts of child molestation, suffered specifically for reasons that are not fully explored in the documentary.

That Bakersfield and Kern County have long prided themselves on "cowboy justice" is mentioned, and much is laid at the door of Ed Jagels, who became district attorney on a tough-on-crime campaign. Both of these factors certainly contributed to a high arrest and conviction rate in the area.

But they don't explain the reckless, pornographic and virtually insane nature -- and number -- of charges brought against a group of clean-record, quiet-living people. (Or why no one in the criminal justice system or the media or the general public protested.)

What "Witch Hunt" does, however, is to give these falsely imprisoned parents, many of whom served 10 to 20 years, a chance to tell their stories. Through this, the viewer is able to glimpse the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system, and witness a group of people who seem to have miraculously and heroically found some sort of peace in the aftermath.

John Stoll's story provides the spine of the film. In the midst of a custody dispute over his son, Stoll was arrested and charged with abusing the boy, a crime he vociferously denied. In jail, he met Ricky Pitts, who had also been arrested, with his wife Marcella, for sexually molesting his children.

Pitts told Stoll what would happen next -- police would start "questioning" any child who had been to Stoll's house and soon there would be a long list of victims and crimes. Soon, Jeffrey Modahl, a single father, was arrested and accused of molesting his two young daughters, while Scott Kniffen, his wife and another couple were accused of torture, molestation and participating in sex parties with a variety of children including his own.

In all cases, the testimony of the often very young children seemed clearly coerced and was often contradictory; the prosecutors had little or no physical evidence to back up the charges. Yet all those accused in what began to seem like an epidemic of molestation were convicted and given sentences that bordered on the ludicrous -- hundreds of years for lists of crimes that were logistically if not physically impossible. Stoll and others appealed to various government officials and agencies but were repeatedly ignored or dismissed.

Only when subsequent cases began to involve charges of satanic abuse -- including one "eyewitness account" of a man killing his young son who was in fact alive and well -- did the FBI and state officials become involved. Slowly, the convictions were overturned.

"How did this happen" is the natural question and it is answered in part by moving interviews with Modahl's daughter and the boys who originally testified against Stoll. Rounded up by police, separated from the parents and interviewed for hours and hours, they were told that others had seen the abuse and that if they did not testify a bad man would go free.

What the film does not explain is the nature of the original complaints, how the district attorney's office and local law enforcement came to target these families or what caused things to reach such a fever pitch. There is neither explanation of why local journalists seemed to accept these extraordinary convictions on face value nor any attempt to put these cases in the context of the general molestation hysteria that gripped the state and the nation at this time.

But more important, there is also no explanation for why many of the people involved in prosecuting these cases are still in public office. That they are is shocking and terrifying. What we are left with is a rather fatalistic "sometimes bad things just happen" message, which cannot have been filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy's intent.




'Witch Hunt'

Where: MSNBC

When: 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated

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