Where Were the Law Guardians?
Edward Eggleston, a leading historian of the Salem witch trials, claims that there were no more such ordeals in America after the 17th century. He's wrong. There were similar trials in Virginia in 1706 and in North Carolina in 1712. And although no more witches were executed, belief in witchcraft continued to spread long after.
David Freeman Hawke, an expert in early American history, makes an important point about the notorious Salem trials. They were legitimate by the standards of the time because, after all, each of the accused received a trial presided over by a judge, with a jury of her peers. These were not lynchings.
Similarly, in the epidemic of American child-sex-abuse trials from 1980 to the present, scores of innocent people were convicted in popular courts of law--in Manhattan Beach, California; Jordan, Minnesota; Maplewood, New Jersey (Kelly Michaels); Edenton, North Carolina; Vancouver, Washington; Dade County, Florida; Wenatchee, Washington; and elsewhere.
Although there were abundant charges of sexual molestation, there was no physical evidence of any abuse whatever. Using zealous therapists and official interrogators, the prosecutors were able to get very young children to testify falsely, sometimes against their own parents.
Among those involved as officers of the court were such respected figures as Janet Reno, who, when she was a state attorney general in Dade County, Florida, orchestrated some horrendously unjust convictions. Yet, when she was nominated by Bill Clinton to be Attorney General of the United States, this grim part of her record was ignored.
The silence of the legal establishment in Wenatchee--as innocent people's lives were torn apart--is a classic example of the lack of conscience of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors in these contemporary witch trials. How could the supposed guardians of justice do nothing, say nothing, as diabolical charges turned Wenatchee into a town out of a Stephen King novel?
In March of this year, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a powerful lead editorial, "Wenatchee Abuse; Watchdogs Silent."
"Where were the state and local bar associations as their brethren either conducted the witch hunt or fought a gallant fight with paltry resources to protect the innocent?" it asked.
"Where was the state Commission on Judicial Conduct when it was alleged that judges were unfairly denying the defense evidence and expert testimony, and even presuming the guilt of the accused in informal social conversations?" (Some judges do that, and not only in the state of Washington.)
"Where was [Janet Reno's] Justice Department when a thorough investigation was required and only a superficial review was delivered?
"Where was the American Civil Liberties Union while individuals' civil liberties were being pummeled?"
(The ACLU has been unconscionably absent from these child-sex-abuse witch trials around the country.)
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer continued:
"And where were the traditionally boldest watchdogs of all--the news media--as the story brewed in Wenatchee?"
The Post-Intelligencer itself ran an excellent series--"The Power To Harm," by Andrew Schneider and Mike Barber--but it was late.
"As the legal abuses mounted," the Post-Intelligencer editorial went on, "as often vulnerable adults were unfairly arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison; as always- vulnerable children were torn from their families, imprisoned in mental hospitals, drugged, coerced, and intimidated; as civil rights were ignored and lives destroyed, where were the watchdogs?"
Why were the guardians of the law hiding? Among the possible rationales--the Post-Intelligencer speculated--were "a loathing of child molesters, an impulse to protect children...and smug indifference toward poor people [many of the defendants] who fail to live up to middle-class standards."
It may be that some guardians of the law were afraid the defendants might indeed be guilty, and those timid constitutionalists didn't want to be associated with child sex abusers. But if that's true, they were blinded by prejudice from looking at the actual facts of the cases.
As for the ACLU, how could that alleged protector of all victimized defendants, regardless of race, gender, and class, fail to miss the extraordinary abuse of due process? Kathy Lyon--author of Witch Hunt: A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice in Wenatchee--points out: "There was apparent wide disparity between the quality of representation of rich and poor. All of those convicted of felonies were represented by public defenders. All of those who could afford private attorneys were acquitted, their cases were dismissed, or they pled to misdemeanors."
Now, dig this, in terms of the behavior of the legal establishment: Lyon underlines the fact that "the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys forcefully stalled all [state] legislative attempts to put safeguards into the child interview process, such as videotaping."
The chief cop in the Wenatchee cases, Robert Perez, did not videotape any of his many interviews. He took notes and then tore them up. The only "evidence" of the interviews, therefore, was his "objective" memory.
There are a few lawyers working on appeals for the victims of the legal establishment in Wenatchee. One such attorney is Robert Rosenthal, who was also active in the Kelly Michaels case and recently got Grant Snowden out of prison in Florida. Snowden was sentenced to five consecutive life terms in Florida for child sex abuse of which he is wholly innocent. And Janet Reno was involved in this abuse of justice.
More lawyers are needed to appeal the Wenatchee convictions, and anyone who wants to contribute to this defense fund for justice can write to Connie Frye, Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, P.O. Box 1872, Wenatchee, Washington 98807.
The late Mort Stavis of New York was the first lawyer to give all of himself to bringing justice to these abandoned defendants. He was the one responsible for the ultimate release of Kelly Michaels. When he went for help to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which he cofounded, they turned him away. And that's supposed to be a counterestablishment organization.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.