The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial
The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, should serve as a cautionary tale. When it was all over, the government had spent seven years and $15 million dollars investigating and prosecuting a case that led to no convictions. More seriously, the McMartin case left in its wake hundreds of emotionally damaged children, as well as ruined careers for members of the McMartin staff. No one paid a bigger price than Ray Buckey, one of the principal defendants in the case, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial for a crime (most people recognize today) he never committed. McMartin juror Brenda Williams said that the trial experience taught her to be more cautious: I now realize how easily something can be said and misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. Another juror, Mark Bassett, singled out experts for blame: I thought some of the expert testimony about the children told you more about the expert than the child. I mean, if the expert says children are always 100% believable and then you have a child who is not believable, either the expert is extremely biased or they've never seen anything like that child before. The McMartin trial had its origins in a call placed to police in Manhattan Beach, California by Judy Johnson, the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old son who attended the McMartin Preschool on about ten occasions in 1983. Johnson told Detective Jane Hoag that a school aide, Ray Buckey, the 25-year-old son of the owner of the preschool, had molested her son. Despite the fact that the young boy was unable to identify Ray from photos and medical investigations of the boy showed no signs of sexual abuse, the police conducted searches of Buckey's home, confiscating such evidence as a rubber duck, a graduation robe, and Playboy magazines. Detective Hoag arrested Buckey on September 7, 1983. On March 22, 1984, a grand jury indicted Ray Buckey, Peggy Buckey (Ray's mother), Peggy Ann Buckey (Ray's sister), Virginia McMartin (founder of the preschool thirty years earlier), and three other McMartin teachers, Mary Ann Jackson, Bette Raidor, and Babette Spitler. The grand jury initially indicted the McMartin Seven on 115 counts of child sexual abuse. Two months later, and additional 93 indictment counts were added, as District Attorney Robert Philobosian pursued his strategy of hyping the McMartin case to boost his chances in an upcoming primary election. In June, bail for Peggy Buckey was set at one million dollars. Ray Buckey was held without bail. There are many lessons to be learned from the McMartin Preschool Trial. There are lessons for police and prosecutors, but there are also lessons for the media. It was pack journalism - slanted heavily toward the prosecution, providing sensational headlines day after day, almost never seriously questioning the allegations - that turned the McMartin trial into the expensive and damaging fiasco that it became.
Douglas O. Linder,
The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial,
Available at: https://irlaw.umkc.edu/faculty_works/861