Saturday, September 5, 2015

It's an Accusation So It Must Be True

There is one and only one piece of evidence that it was Danny Brown who raped and murdered Bobbie Russell in December 1981. Her son, Jeffery, six-years old at the time, said it was.

Danny spent 19 years in prison.  Then the DNA came back.  Wasn't him.  It was, the DNA said, Sherman Preston.  That was no surprise since around that time Sherman was implicated in a number of related crimes - always acting alone.  In fact, by the time the DNA came back, he was serving a life sentence for a similar crime just a little bit earlier - a crime for which he was convicted in large part based on DNA.

Danny got out.  The prosecutor dismissed the charges.  Innocence triumphs.  It was a great day.


An investigator from the prosecutor's office had located Jeffery and went across the country to talk to him.  Now 27, he said now what he'd said then.  It was Danny he saw do that to his mom.  And Julia Bates, the elected prosecutor who'd gone into court to personally announce that she was dismissing the charges against Danny because no jury would find him guilty what with the DNA and all, maintained then and maintains now that Danny Brown in fact killed Bobbie Russell.

Because Jeffery.  Because Jeffery was 6 when it happened.  Because he was 7 when he testified. Because even though his testimony included things that obviously were not so, that were physically impossible (he claimed to see things on the other side of solid walls from where he was) he told the truth about seeing Danny do that to his mom.  Because, as she told Jennifer Feehan in the Toledo Blade five years ago when asked if she thought Danny was guilty
Asked if she thinks Brown killed Ms. Russell, Mrs. Bates said yes.
"I do," she said. "I don't think little kids lie."
I thought then and think now that it was one of the stupidest things anyone has ever said.  Kids in fact lie all the time.  The dog ate my homework.  And of course, they're wrong a lot.  Even when they believe things.  (Again, Jeffery testified to several things that were demonstrably false, physically impossible.)  And that he still believes?  Sure.  That happens too.

The first time I wrote here about Danny's case, I told this true story:
Friday night, June 11, 1965. I was at Shea Stadium. Mets-Dodgers game. Warren Spahn was pitching for the Mets, Don Drysdale for the Dodgers. Dodgers won 2-1. Both Dodgers runs were on homers by Drysdale. The Mets run was on a homer by Spahn. Incredible. Etched in my memory. I'll never forget it. Except, of course, it didn't happen that way.
Oh, I was at the game, and it was one hell of a game. A real pitching duel between Spahn and Drysdale. And Drysdale did win it with a home run in the 8th. But the Dodgers other run was on a homer by John Roseboro in the 5th. The Mets run, also in the 5th, came when Joe Christopher singled in Johnny Lewis. Spahn went 0 for 3. Helluva game, like I said. As Casey used to say, you could look it up. (I did. I'll save you the trouble. Here's the link.) Close enough to my memory so you can see how the story got better over time. Until . . . . Like I said, I'm mistaken. I know I'm wrong about just how the game unfolded. But I remember it as three homers - two by Drysdale and one by Spahn. It's not a lie to say I remember it that way. And if I hadn't looked it up, I wouldn't know I was wrong.
Julie Bates, whatever else, is not stupid.  Yet "I don't think little kids lie."

What she meant, of course, is that she believes them when they accuse.

Which brings me, in my typical elliptical way, to my subject, Richard Beck's compelling but flawed new book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s.  

February 1984, KABC-TV News in Los Angeles included this breathless report on the investigation into allegations at the long-established, highly regarded McMartin Preschool:
Authorities now believe that at least sixty children were victimized. . . . [They] had been keeping a grotesque secret of being sexually abused and made to appear in pornographic films while in the preschools's care and of being forced to witness the mutilation and killing of animals to scare the kids into being silent.
Wow!  And then it turns out that the same things were happening at day cares and preschools across the country.  But worse.  Kids were being forced to eat body parts of murdered children.  Eyes were plucked out.  Satan worship.  Bodies buried in and around the facilities.

Hell of a story.  And, I should add, pretty much entirely bullshit.

Except everyone bought into it.  Police, prosecutors, juries.  Parents, god knows.  Doctors made up tests from which they could tell, tell for sure, that what was perfectly normal in a child was hard evidence of abuse.  Social workers and psychologists and psychiatrists and cops and parents coerced children into making up more and more outrageous stories.  

Sure there was no evidence.  The dead animals weren't found.  The missing and murdered children don't seem to have been missing or murdered.  The pornographic films (or the studios where they were made) weren't discovered.  The gouged out eyeballs and lopped off body parts don't seem actually to have been gouged or lopped.  But the press dutifully (and enthusiastically) reported as true.  And juries often believed.

Because like Julie Bates, nobody could believe that little kids would lie.  At least not about something really awful being done to them.   And after all, the more you had to threaten them for not telling or reward them for telling, the more obviously true the allegations.

It's that story, built around the McMartin fiasco that started it all, that frames Beck's book.  He's not the first to tell it, but he tells it well.  From the allegations to the investigation to the trials and then the unraveling as it became clear that the absence of evidence really wasn't evidence of guilt.

And as he tells the McMartin Preschool story, so Beck tells of the national hysteria that ensued. Because if the Golem came to LA in the guise of Peggy McMartin, it must be in a Long Island basement masked as the Friedmans and dressed as James Rud at the Valley Green Trailer court in Jordan, Minnesota, and in Niles, Michigan and Malden, Massachusetts and Chicago and. . . .

Good god!  These monsters were everywhere destroying the lives of our children.  And the evidence was, of course, that the children could be browbeaten into saying so.  And that, stunningly, all the real evidence - the films, the ritually slaughtered animals and children, the hidden tunnels, the lopped off limbs - none of it could be found.  How diabolical!  And how much that proved.

For its considerable strengths, We Believe the Children is not without its weakness.  

Trying to find an underlying cause, Beck turns to the woman's movement and the increasing role of women in society.  The religious right and social conservatives glommed onto the idea of evil daycare as a way of punishing women who'd abandon the role of housewife and take an actual job - forcing her children into the day care clutches of committed Satanists.  My god.  He may not be entirely wrong, but it's overly simplistic as most here's-the-cause explanations tend to be.  (As others have noted, Beck's evidence doesn't really support his argument.  Beck points to Gloria Steinem's financial contributions and Ms. magazine's 1993 cover story headline, "BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists. One Woman's Story.")

Nor is Beck's exploration of Freudian (and Freud's own) analysis and the psychiatric and psychological worlds' embrace of multiple personality disorder particularly convincing.  

But the story.  The panic, the ruined lives, the political careers made.  (Janet Reno, Clinton's Attorney General, rode to Washington on the back of Frank Fuster whose wife, Ileana, as part of her plea deal joined the chorus of accusers telling a jury about how Frank, wearing "a white sheet and a strange mask, . . . had sexually assaulted her with a crucifix" and forced her to abuse kids.)

If you think Salem and the witch trials, you're on the right track.  It's a connection Beck makes explicit in his introduction, though he downplays the horror of Salem noting that once the hysteria there ended, there were apologies and reparations.  The victims of the day care hysteria, on the other hand? Well, some have had their convictions overturned.  Others continue to rot in our prisons.  Then again, they killed a bunch of folks up in Salem, and apologies and reparations didn't really do them any good.

Perhaps oddly (or perhaps I'm just wishing that Beck would climb onto one of my own hobby horses), Beck doesn't do much looking at what we haven't learned. 

The Golem, after all, turns out not to have been in the witches of Salem.  They didn't exist.  Nor was the Golem in the preschool teachers and day care workers who didn't do a damn thing to the kids. (Nor, and I'm straying only slightly, was the Golem in the communists and fellow travelers, like President Eisenhower, who Joe McCarthy and his ilk took on in the late 40s and early 50s.)  No, the Golem was the witch hunters, the prosecutors (and cops and parents and media and your next door neighbors).   

And the Golem remains.  This is the lesson implicit in We the Children.  It's the Golem of uncritical belief in the monster under the bed.  The Satanist, cult-predator, child-care workers of the 50s who could only be stopped by locking them up forever - and the damage they caused, my god - are in this year's flavor those who ever considered a sex act outside the missionary position between spouses. And maybe even then.

From the sex offender registries to the hysteria surrounding campus sexual aggression (he looked at me without first obtaining permission) is but a small step.  Believe the children?  We believe the accusers.  Just ask Danny Brown.

My thanks to Public Affairs Books for providing me a copy of We Believe the Children  for this review.


  1. Thank you for your post. There are many like myself whose lives were ruined by the witch hunts of the '80's and while laws are changing and I find myself once again appealing my wrongful conviction, no amount of compensation can justify the 14 years of incarceration I have suffered so far. I hope that more books are written about this and related subjects such as the facts about the actual reoffense rate (1.8%) in CA. Bullies come in many forms but their hate is obvious.

  2. Reminds me to a case that was on the news here not long ago.....
    10 year old girl was angry with his dad, don´t know anymore why - if she wasn´t allowed to stay outside as long as she wished or should do her homework,whatever.....and accused her father of sexually molesting her.
    Result: She and her two younger brothers were taken from their parents, police doing research and so on.
    Later, she confessed it was a lie - she hadn´t thought about how severe the consequences would be. Probably just thought daddy would get a little stress and that was it.
    Until the time they brought it to the public, all three children were still not back with their parents. Guess they say "well, maybe she´s just scared or ashamed and therefore now says she lied".
    Her brothers were crying for their parents and couldn´t understand what was happening.
    Just my two cents about "little kids don´t lie"....