Unlearned Lessons of the McMartin Preschool case

mcmartinschoolMarch 31, 2014
It was the longest criminal trial in American history and it ended without a single conviction. Five people were charged with child sexual abuse based on extremely flimsy evidence. Some parents came to believe outlandish stories about ritual abuse and tunnels underneath the preschool. It is no wonder that the McMartin case, once labeled the largest “mass molestation” case in history, has come to be called a witch-hunt. In a commentary to a Retro Report earlier this month, Clyde Haberman, former Times reporter, repeated the view that the  case was a witch-hunt that spawned a wave of other cases of “dubious provenance.” But does that description do justice to the facts?

A careful examination of court records reveals that the witch-hunt narrative about the McMartin case is a powerful but not entirely accurate story. For starters, critics have obscured the facts surrounding the origins of the case. Richard Beck, quoted as an expert in the Retro Report story, recently asserted that the McMartin case began when Judy Johnson “went to the police” to allege that her child had been molested. Debbie Nathan, the other writer quoted by Retro Report, went even further, asserting that “everyone overlooked the fact that Judy Johnson was psychotic.”

But the Manhattan Beach Police did not begin this case on the word of Judy Johnson. Instead, they were moved by the medical evidence of anal trauma on her son. Johnson did not come to the police station on August 12; she went to her family doctor who, after examining her son, referred him to an Emergency Room. That doctor recommended that the boy be examined by a specialist. The pediatric specialist is the one who reported to the Manhattan Beach Police Department that “the victim’s anus was forcibly entered several days ago.”

Although Judy Johnson died of alcohol poisoning in 1986, making her an easy target for those promoting the witch-hunt narrative, there is no evidence that she was “psychotic” three years earlier. A profile in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, published after Johnson died, made it clear that she was “strong and healthy” in 1983 and that she “jogged constantly and ate health food.” Yes, many strange things were said by parents in February and March 1984. But that does not mean they were all “psychotic” then, let alone half a year earlier. The case was not started by the rantings of a mythical crazy woman.

Retro Report also disposed of the extensive medical evidence in the McMartin case with a single claim that there was no “definitive” evidence. But defense lawyer Danny Davis allowed that the genital injuries on one girl were “serious and convincing.” (His primary argument to the jury was that much of the time that this girl attended McMartin was outside the statute of limitations.) The vaginal injuries on another girl, one of the three involved in both McMartin trials, were described by a pediatrician as proving sexual abuse “to a medical certainty.” Were the reporter and fact-checkers for Retro Report aware of this evidence?

None of this is to defend the charges against five (possibly six) teachers in the case. Nor is it an endorsement of claims, made by some parents, that scores of children had been ritually abused. Rather it is a plea to treat the case as something that unfolded over time and the children as individuals, not as an undifferentiated mass. As it turns out, there are credible reasons that jurors in both trials voted in favor of a guilty verdict on some counts. Those facts do not fit the witch-hunt narrative. Instead, they portray the reality of a complicated case.

When the story of prosecutorial excess overshadows all of the evidence in a child sexual abuse case, children are the ones sold short by the media. That is precisely what Retro Report did earlier this month. The injustices in the McMartin case were significant, most of them were to defendants, and the story has been told many times. But there was also an array of credible evidence of abuse that should not be ignored or written out of history just because it gets in the way of a good story.

The witch-hunt narrative has replaced any complicated truths about the McMartin case, and Retro Report, whose mission is to bust media myths, just came down solidly on the side of the myth. It wasn’t all a witch-hunt.

NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of a blog post that appeared on the OUP Blog on March 27, 2014. Why it ended up here is a story for another day. But rest assured, it is here to stay.