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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: A Look Back at the Notorious McMartian Preschool Case

…..Starting in 1983, with accusations from a mother whose mental instability later became an issue in the case, the operators of the McMartin Preschool Day Care Center near Los Angeles were charged with raping and sodomizing dozens of small children. The trial dragged on for years, one of the longest and costliest in American history. In the end…no one was ever convicted of a single act of wrongdoing. Indeed, some of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air--and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?

     Still, the McMartin case unleashed a nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details….

     Often enough in these cases, news organizations share blame. In the McMartin case, they were far from innocent observers. A pack mentality set in after a local television journalist first reported the allegations. Across California and beyond, normal standards of fairness and reasoned skepticism were routinely thrown to the wind, with news gatherers scrambling to outdo one another in finding purposed examples of monstrous behavior by the principal defendants: Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Raymond Buckey. (Mrs. Buckey, daughter of the school's founder, died at 74 in 2000. Raymond Buckey, now in his mid-50s, said years ago that he wanted simply to be left alone….) It would be comforting to believe that mindlessly frenetic news coverage is a relic of the past. But who could make that claim with a straight face?

     Did the McMartin case have any lasting effect? In some respects, yes. Teachers across America grew afraid to hug or touch their students, out of fear of being misunderstood and possibly being brought up on charges. A widely held notion that young children do not lie about such matters took a huge hit. Some are vulnerable to implanted memories. In the McMartin case, many jurors found that leading questions from therapists steered impressionable children toward some of the most macabre tales….

Clyde Haberman, "The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse," The New York Times, March 9, 2014 

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