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TV Review: Witch Hunt

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In the summer of 1984, over a dozen people were arrested in Bakersfield, California and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse of a minor.  It stunned the community and helped make the career of Kern Co. District Attorney Ed Jagels.  But according to Witch Hunt, a new documentary airing on MSNBC, no one was more surprised than the defendants themselves.

Witch Hunt interviews a number of those defendants, a group of lower-class Bakersfield residents who suddenly faced dozens of charges of molestation from neighborhood youths, often including their own children.  At trial, the jury was bombarded with tales of lewd sex acts.  The defendants claim that they were denied a fair hearing by the judge and that the children's testimony sounded coached.  None the less, the jury convicted them, with some offenders sentenced to more than 300 years.

The defendants languished in prison, with some sent to the fearsome California prison San Quentin.  Later, stories began emerging in Bakersfield of satanism and human sacrifice among these same families.  Then-California Attorney General Jon Van de Kamp was asked to look into it.

What the Attorney General's office found, however, was that not only was there no evidence to support the rumors of Satanism, but that the Kern County sheriff and District Attorney had done a very poor job of prosecuting the child molestation cases, specifically mentioning the improper questioning and "coaching" of child witnesses. 

This information lent credence to the defendants' claims of innocence.  The D.A.'s case was further undercut when the children who had testified to abuse began changing their stories.  As the story came out, more and more children came forward to recant their testimony.  Their stories were consistent:  police and social workers had coached them.  They were threatened, cajoled and coerced into making accusations against their own parents.

Since the convictions had hinged almost entirely on the children's testimony, with the lack of substantive corroboration, the defendants sought to have their convictions overturned.  The first success came in 1990, when the convictions of Rick Pitts and six others were overturned.

But the greatest victory for the defendants came when they uncovered new evidence.  During the appeals process, defense lawyers for James Stoll received a copy of the state's files on the case.  Fortunately for them, the state also included evidence that was never presented at the trial.  First was a report from a medical examiner that found no evidence of sexual abuse.  The second was an audiotape of an interview with one of the children that clearly illustrated the "coaching" methods used to extract accusations from the children.  This evidence was not shown to the defense in the first trial, an egregious case of prosecutorial misconduct.  Confronted with this, the prosecution's case was devastated.

Stoll was the last of the original defendants left in prison.  With the help of the North California Innocence Project, he challenged his conviction.  The only strong evidence presented by the state was the testimony of his own son, Jed.  All of the children who had accused Stoll recanted.  Jed did not, although he admitted when challenged that he had no specific recollections of abuse, but that he felt that he had suffered it.  This bore hard on James, who felt that Jed had been intimidated into telling the story as a child, and that his feelings were shaped by years of being told that he was just in denial.

Stoll was freed in May of 2004 after suffering 20 years in prison.  34 of the convictions were ultimately reversed.  Unfortunately, two of the accused died in prison.

Witch Hunt may not be an entirely accurate title, since there was no wave of mob anger typical of other "witch hunts."  The documentary is unable to explain what caused authorities to focus their attention on these people or why they acted unethically — and illegally — to secure their convictions.

Those involved in the prosecution are understandably absent from the documentary.  District Attorney Jagels — who still holds office — declined to appear in the film due to "pending lawsuits."  The only authority figure to be seen is Donny Youngblood, former Detective Commander of the Sheriff's Department and current Sheriff of Bakersfield.  Youngblood blames the convictions on a lack of training — specifically in the treatment of juvenile witnesses.  His most telling comment is that "what went wrong — if anything went wrong — was that we probably should have relied more on experts or professional counselors" (emphasis added).  If Youngblood did comment on the evidence withheld from the defense — hard to describe as an accident — it was not included in the film.

The film does an effective job of conveying the human tragedy of parents forcibly removed from their children and shoved into prison.  It also tells of the children, particularly their difficult time in dealing with the guilt of having done such a thing to their own parents.

The ultimate message of the film, as I see it, is only mentioned briefly.  Witch Hunt does impress upon the viewer the difficulty of proving your innocence, especially after being convicted under dubious circumstances.  But it only touches on the hysteria that accompanies stories of child molestation in this country.  One observer notes that we, as a society, are "far more fearful than statistics or objective proof would show."  It is this hysteria that can convince a jury to send people to prison even if there's just a chance that they may be guilty.  And it's this hysteria that forces convicted sex offenders — guilty or innocent — to be forever marked with a scarlet letter under our laws.

What the film doesn't say is that we've done such a good job of making people scared of strangers (perhaps too good a job) that we've made people ignorant of the fact that most sex abuse is committed by someone known to the child.  People in this country are more afraid of molestation than they are of any other crime.  But they're not scared of the right people.  Kids shouldn't talk to strangers, of course, but adults should be aware that the person they last expect to commit molestation may be the culprit.

Unfortunately, the hysteria in our society is at such a level that sanity — and statistical reality — may never be able to cut through the noise.  It means that more people like James Stoll will sit in our prisons just because they might be a sex offender.  But Witch Hunt should help us come to grips with our colossal fear of strangers, and the reality that such a fear enables an often unfair justice system.

So be sure to watch Witch Hunt on MSNBC — airing right after To Catch a Predator.

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