and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
December 29, 1999


Only in Massachusetts


It shouldn't require the turn of a millennium, apt occasion though it is, to recall how much our system of law owes to a particular leap in progress centuries old--namely the one that began when the forces of rationality started to displace those of unreason and superstition. The process was a long one, but ultimately the world saw the ascendance of rational rules of evidence, of judges and juries. To fathom the importance of this piece of progress it is only necessary to recall what came before--to remember matters like the tests used to determine the guilt or innocence of people accused of being witches.

Alleged witches could be tried by their neighbors--or, if this route seemed to offer little hope, they could choose the judgment-of-God test, in which they were thrown into a pond, hands or feet tied. If an accused witch drowned, this meant, according to prevailing wisdom of the age, that God had accepted her into heaven and therefore she was innocent. If she managed to float, it was taken as a sign that God had rejected the accused, who was then judged guilty of being a witch and put to death accordingly.

It is hard, in our enlightened times, to appreciate what the introduction of a rational system of laws meant, and the elementary ways in which it impelled society's progress. It is also worth noting that in our enlightened times, a rational justice system is so central a value that that any violations thereof stand out as peculiarly shocking--a throwback to the irrational past.

We have witnessed echoes of that past in nearly two decades of child sex-abuse trials, with all their accusatory fervor, incredible testimony and convictions based on no evidence--all of which have fallen apart or are in the process of doing so.

Now the courts have issued their findings in the case of Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, the migrant farm worker swept up in the mass arrests of Wenatchee, Wash., residents, sent off to trial and prison in 1994 and 1995 on charges of child molestation. In a unanimous decision reversing his conviction, the justices of Washington state's Court of Appeals wasted no words. They had looked into the record and the report of the Superior Court judge specially appointed to examine the case and they had concluded, among other points, that the state had "improperly influenced" the testimony of the accusing child witnesses. A phrase like improperly influenced could not of course do justice to the investigating judge's venomous, relentlessly detailed characterizations of the state's case and the credibility of its witnesses--but it would do.

Court decisions like this are now the nightmare that haunts the Wenatchee prosecutors, who had after all managed, in the heyday of the town's alleged child sex-ring scandals, to charge 43 people with a stunning variety of offenses and to convict 21 of them. It didn't help, either, when one of the two sisters who had made all the accusations came forward two weeks ago to tell local reporters, as she has before, that the abuse accusations had all been invented, that she had been medicated and hospitalized against her will and otherwise been prevented--by Child Protective Services personnel and state therapists--from recanting her accusations in court.

With nine of their convictions by thrown out, and the likelihood of much more of the same to come, the prosecutors are now embarked on an all-out effort to arrange plea bargains with those still in prison--deals that would preclude further court challenges to their convictions. Indeed prosecutors had made such an offer to Mr. Hidalgo a few months ago. He could enter a guilty plea to a lesser charge and thereby win immediate release--an offer he promptly refused.

Thanks to its grotesque plot lines, its cast of characters headed by chief abuse investigator Detective Robert Perez and his two foster daughters, whose reports of their near-nightly molestation at orgies all over town--including the church altar--enthralled Child Protective Services workers and most of the town's establishment, the Wenatchee story has become something of a legend. Indeed the moviesque weirdness of this saga sometimes threatens to obscure its raw facts, among them that of the torments visited on everyone accused, arrested, hauled before Mr. Perez and aides from Child Protective Services, their children dispatched to foster homes. Among those thus arrested and accused of sexually assaulting their own children were Mark and Carol Doggett, a young couple who had, according to intelligence gathered by Child Protective Service workers, directed their five children to line up outside their bedroom nearly every night, so each could be molested in turn.

When he was first picked up and brought before Mr. Perez, Mr. Doggett recalls, he was astounded not only by the charges but also the vivid sexual details of the attacks they told him he would suffer in prison, if he didn't confess to his crimes. "Some of these acts, I promise you, I never heard of," he observed, with some wryness.

No less astounding to him was the presence, during this interrogation, of the chief supervisor of Wenatchee's Child Protective Services, Tim Abbey. Mr. Doggett's first thought had been that he might be there as a mediator, someone to appeal to--he was, after all a social worker. How much he was mistaken in this was soon enough clear, as Mr. Abbey himself began describing what terrors Mr. Doggett could expect in prison, if he didn't confess.

Detectives, he understood, often made such threats--but a social worker? What was the supervisor from Child Protective Services doing in the role of an adjunct police interrogator? When the long session finally ended, he recalls, Mr. Abbey announced that he was going to go home to his wife and family, and that Mr. Perez was going to go home as well, but that Mr. Doggett would be going off to prison.

Sentenced, in 1995, to nearly 11 years, the Doggetts appealed. Their convictions were overturned two years later.

Elsewhere in the nation, prosecutors in the notorious Little Rascals day care case in Edenton, N.C., case this fall called a halt to their long efforts, by dropping all remaining charges against their prime target, former school head Robert Kelly. Addressing this news, a committee formed to defend Mr. Kelly and the six other citizens accused in Edenton issued a statement noting that that Edenton was next to the last of this nation's high-profile sex-abuse cases to be closed down, all of them in favor of the accused. The statement went on to declare that "Only Gerald Amirault in Massachusetts, who is now in his 14th year in prison, seems out of reach of the workings of justice."

Appeals courts across the land have grasped the obvious about these cases, and ruled accordingly. In Massachusetts alone has the state's highest court viewed as acceptable the kind of prosecutorial corruption, leading of child witnesses, fabricated testimony and all the sundry other perversions of reason and law that led to the conviction of the Amiraults. This is the fact no one can explain away, the affront to rationality, not to mention justice, that ensures, among its other effects, that the fulfillment of the prosecutors' dearest wish--which is to see the end, at last, of public discussion and concerns about the Amirault case--is a long way off.

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