The Witch-Hunt Narrative
By Ross E. Cheit
Oxford University Press, 508 pages

In February 1984, a Los Angeles television reporter named Wayne Satz revealed that authorities were investigating allegations of serial child abuse at the McMartin Preschool. In a wholly uncritical series of reports, Satz claimed that dozens of students had been molested, often through grotesque methods. A media frenzy intensified by understandably panicked parents culminated in a grand jury’s returning 115 counts against seven employees. But as the case proceeded, problems emerged. Before trial, the prosecution dismissed all charges against five of the teachers. One of the two remaining defendants was acquitted; two trials of the second ended in hung juries. The seven-year case, which cost the state around $15 million, triggered a backlash among prosecutors and especially the media.

This spring, Brown University professor Ross Cheit informed the Providence Journal that he had spent 15 years overcoming what he later described as “enormous” challenges while being fortified by “an army of research assistants” to fulfill what seemed to be an extraordinarily modest goal: to “provoke discussion” about how the press covered the McMartin and subsequent 1980s day-care cases. But his new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, is not modest at all. It is an out-and-out attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to rehabilitate long-discredited claims of day-care sexual abuse.

In the preface, Cheit reveals that he was sexually abused as a 13-year-old, and that he sued the San Francisco Boys Chorus in 1994 for ignoring the issue. He claims that what he calls the “witch-hunt narrative” has “undermined the credibility of children as witnesses” and weakened the investigators and agencies who are inclined to believe them. For this reason, “witch-hunt” theorists, instead of vindicating the falsely accused, have damaged the American judicial system in general and child victims in particular.

His argument does not persuade. Even as his book gives every benefit of the doubt to the investigators and prosecutors of the highest-profile 1980s day-care cases, much of Cheit’s evidence nonetheless portrays the prosecutions as massive miscarriages of justice.

The book’s first substantive chapter addresses the McMartin case. Establishing a pattern that dominates the volume, Cheit grudgingly concedes instances of investigative or prosecutorial misconduct while doing everything possible to minimize their effects. He concedes that hired investigators asked leading questions of children and misinterpreted medical evidence of abuse. (These interviewers, he reassures readers, operated from the “best intentions” due to their “earnest attempt to avoid dismissing children’s voices.”) Some children offered unreliable claims—such as a teacher allegedly bringing one boy to a cemetery, where he witnessed human bodies being exhumed—yet prosecutors filed charges anyway. (Cheit argues that other charges were nonetheless valid.) The prosecutors, he notes, improperly withheld notes revealing the deep emotional problems of the first accuser’s mother. But, he hastens to add, she might not have been mentally imbalanced at the time her son made his initial complaint.

Cheit does not say that all the McMartin teachers were guilty; five of them, he observes, were “unjustly charged.” He also notes that a contagion of investigation spread to seven surrounding preschools, including one in which a judge subsequently found the children’s testimony “totally unconvincing.”

If such a record, amid a media frenzy that effectively portrayed innocent people as guilty of one of society’s most heinous crimes, doesn’t constitute a witch hunt, it’s hard to imagine what could. Yet Cheit can only bring himself to describe the McMartin case as “doubly unjust.” He balances the suffering of the teachers unjustly charged—some who struggled to make bail, one who was temporarily separated from her children—against the possibility that one of the McMartin suspects might have been guilty. But, of course, the allegations against that suspect came from the same investigatory process that resulted in myriad charges against innocent people.

The book then moves on to examine more than a dozen cases in which Cheit contends “witch-hunt narrative” reporters got things wrong. This structure weakens the book’s argument. The first few times Cheit downplays dubious conduct by investigators or prosecutors, he almost sounds reasonable. But the cumulative effect of such a one-sided approach undermines the book’s credibility. So, too, does the almost casual way in which he concedes that even by his standards, several of the most significant cases—such as in Kern County, California, and Wenatchee, Washington—featured wrongful convictions.

In this post-McMartin narrative, Cheit spends the most time on the case of a New Jersey day-care teacher named Kelly Michaels, who was convicted of 115 charges of child abuse and sentenced to 47 years in prison. Cheit clearly considers the verdict and preceding investigation basically proper. He reaches this conclusion by again minimizing undeniably dubious actions by investigators or prosecutors. Prosecutors, he admits, filed some “fantastic” charges against Michaels. (That is: They claimed that Michaels made little children eat a cake of feces or licked peanut butter off their genitals, even as the children’s parents noticed none of this before the investigation began.) The Department of Youth and Family Services investigator, he recalls, “prompted” and “inappropriately” pressured some witnesses. (That is: The investigator told one boy who wasn’t implicating Michaels not to “be a baby” and informed another prospective child witness that Michaels “took advantage of you kids.”) Cheit seems unable or unwilling to consider that an investigator who shows extreme bias with some child witnesses is not a reputable source to interrogate other children, or that prosecutors who bring “fantastic” claims sacrifice the benefit of the doubt regarding the accuracy of their other allegations.

A three-judge appellate panel unanimously overturned Michaels’s conviction. The judges acted as they did, the author reasons, not because they had considered the evidence before them but because they had been influenced by media pressure, caused especially by the work of Dorothy Rabinowitz and Nat Hentoff. To substantiate this breathtaking assertion, Cheit cites neither the judges’ private papers nor interviews with the judges about their thought process.

The appellate court’s ruling was upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court, to which Cheit devotes two pages without providing a single quotation from the court’s decision. Readers, therefore, don’t learn that the justices unanimously believed that “several major errors…occurred in the prosecution of the case.” Or that “almost all of the interrogations conducted in the course of the investigation revealed an obvious lack of impartiality on the part of the interviewer.” Or that the record was “replete with instances in which children were asked blatantly leading questions that furnished information the children themselves had not mentioned.”

Perhaps the New Jersey Supreme Court did badly err. But Cheit’s editorial decision to force readers onto Google to learn why the justices unanimously disagreed with his interpretation betrays a lack of confidence in his conclusions.

Even as he denounces the journalistic inquiries into investigative overreach, Cheit never precisely pins down what constituted a “witch-hunt” publication. (Indeed, he treats the “witch-hunt narrative” almost as if it were an individual entity, frequently using such constructions as “the evidence is ignored by the witch-hunt narrative” without any specific citation.) Cheit lumps together, for instance, Rabinowitz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work for the Wall Street Journal with scattered Internet sites, media-critique columns from the mid-1980s, or unidentified “other magazine writers.” By the end of the book, it appears as though anyone who criticized prosecutorial overreach or a media rush to judgment in any of the day-care sexual-abuse cases might have contributed to the “witch-hunt narrative.”

Underlying Cheit’s project is an assumption that in certain types of cases, even a mostly accurate journalistic exposure of prosecutorial or investigatory wrongdoing can cause the public and the legal community to look more critically than they should at similar allegations in the future. As a result, actual victims might never receive their day in court. (Cheit conveniently avoids confronting this issue by denigrating the accuracy of the “witch-hunt narrative” journalists or by downplaying the extent of legal abuses their work exposed.) Yet the high-profile resolutions of the Catholic Church and Jerry Sandusky scandals suggest that successful prosecutions of child sexual abuse can occur in the current climate, without the type of state misconduct seen in the 1980s day-care cases.

If true, in any case, Cheit’s argument would suggest that victims’ advocates should concern themselves with avoiding the massive due-process abuses on which a subsequent “witch-hunt narrative” can feed, as they clearly did not do in the 1980s. Yet it seems unlikely such a prudent course will be adopted.

The closest contemporary resemblance to the day-care cases’ “witch-hunt” atmosphere comes in the crusade against due process for college students accused of sexual assault. Rivals for the media role of Wayne Satz are Richard Pérez-Peña of the New York Times and BuzzFeed’s Katie Baker and Jessica Testa, who regularly produce sensationalized articles uncritically presenting the claims of campus accusers and their faculty allies. (BuzzFeed recently published a piece in which an anti–due process professor at Occidental College asserted that her own college’s administration had broken into her office.) Much like the ostensibly well-meaning but deeply unfair investigators in the McMartin case, elite universities such as Stanford, Cornell, and Duke have established procedures all but designed to infer guilt. (Stanford has trained its campus disciplinary panels to interpret a logical presentation by a student accused of sexual assault as a sign of guilt.) The governmental role in the emerging witch hunt has been led by the Obama administration’s Office for Civil Rights and by congressional allies such as Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who have sought to coerce colleges into substantially weakening campus due-process protections in ways that make it more likely that campus tribunals will brand students, including innocent ones, as rapists.

It seems, alas, that each generation must learn anew, if in a slightly different context, the importance of following due process and avoiding a rush to judgment, even when addressing highly emotional allegations of criminal wrongdoing. Two decades from now, those engaged in the current campus witch hunt can only hope that a book will come along seeking to excuse their unforgivable excesses, as Cheit’s The Witch-Hunt Narrative has tried, and failed, to do for the day-care cases.

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