Rascals case in brief
In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent’s complaint about punishment given her child.
Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth “Betsy” Kelly, Robert “Bob” Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.
Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.
By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina’s longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did. Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series “Frontline.” Although “Innocence Lost” did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.
With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents. This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.
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Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….
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Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….
June 28, 2013
“Children can lie, but research shows that they do not fabricate detailed descriptions of adult sexual acts unless they have experienced or witnessed them. Studies also show that children have good memories and that even preschoolers can remember key events like sexual abuse. One problem is that repeatedly molested children have great difficulty distinguishing one act of abuse from another and linking abuse to specific dates….
“In the McMartin case, we learned… to minimize the use of leading questions during interviews…. While the verdict comes as a disappointment to the children in the case, their courage and willingness to testify for weeks on end has been a catalyst for change that will protect countless other children.”
– From Believe the Children adviser Civia Tamarkin’s interview with John E. B. Myers, professor at McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, in “The McMartin Nightmare” (People magazine, Feb. 5, 1990)
As his faculty bio notes, Professor Myers has long been “one of the country’s foremost authorities on child abuse,” especially in tracing its historical context, but he seems to have been excruciatingly slow to recognize the fraudulence of “satanic ritual abuse” claims. Although he stopped short of declaring the McMartins guilty, Myers clearly stationed himself in the “child saver” camp, more sympathetic toward serial interviewer Kee MacFarlane than toward the defendants whose lives she devastated.
In a journal article five years later, Myers would acknowledge “growing skepticism regarding children’s credibility,” at the same time warning of a “real danger that the pendulum will swing too far in the direction of disbelief.”
More recently, Myers addressed McMartin in “Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future” (2006), crediting it with raising the standard for interviewing, but concluding that “In the final analysis, we will never know what happened at the McMartin Preschool. From the outset, the case divided people into ‘true believers’ and skeptics….”
In “The Backlash: Child Protection Under Fire” (1994) Myers had added a most curious footnote: “I have no opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of any of the McMartin defendants.” How could he – a law professor! – acknowledge the corruption of the child-witnesses’ testimony, yet doubt the defendants deserved a “not guilty” verdict?
Almost 20 years later, I wondered whether Myers might have formed an opinion.
His emailed response: “No idea about guilt or innocence.”
Nov. 9, 2012
“Did I recognize that child sex abuse existed and was a serious problem? reporters would ask. A strange question, that. The discussion of no other crime would require such a disclaimer. Journalists who have written about false murder charges are seldom asked to provide reassurance that they know murder is a bad thing, and it really happens.”
– From “No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusations, False Witness and Other Terrors of Our Times” by Dorothy Rabinowitz (2003)
Dec. 3, 2014
“I was in graduate school in Southern California 30 years ago when the McMartin Preschool scandal erupted, featuring tales of Satanic rituals, underground tunnels, group sex with animals and children, and various acrobatic acts that would challenge Cirque du Soleil, all believed credulously by the media and California prosecutors….
“There was something so literally incredible about (such) ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ cults that serious doubts and questions should have been raised right at the outset.
“Some hard questions are starting to be asked about the latest sequel to the Salem witch trials – the college campus ‘rape culture’ hysteria…. The Rolling Stone story about an especially brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia is provoking considerable backlash– with a few critics suggesting the entire story might be a hoax ….
“It took years for the ‘Satanic child abuse crisis’ to collapse, and several months for the Duke lacrosse scandal to turn around. What is interesting about the UVa story is how quickly it is facing credible challenge….”
– From “The Spirit of Salem Lives On” by Steven Hayward at powerlineblog.com (Dec. 2)
June 11, 2012
But what about Betsy Kelly and Scott Privott, who both finally accepted plea deals while maintaining their innocence, and Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris and Shelley Stone, all of whom waited years for prosecutors to drop charges?
The registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, speaks unequivocally about “a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept the country….
“Starting in the early 1980s, some prosecutors, therapists and child welfare workers became
convinced that child sex abuse on a massive scale was rampant in their communities. They
believed that most of the victims were too afraid or embarrassed to discuss the abuse, so they
worked to overcome this fear and reluctance by using highly suggestive, persistent and
unrelenting questioning techniques when interviewing the young children.
“It worked. Some of the children complied and accused parents, day-care workers and adult acquaintances of numerous horrifying and bizarre acts. This led to a series of extraordinary prosecutions, many involving allegations of satanic rituals.”
Unfortunately, this acknowledgment of the moral panic doesn’t earn the remaining “Edenton 5” a listing in the registry. Here’s why, according to research assistant Ted Koehler:
“For a case to count as an exoneration for our purposes, a person convicted of a crime must be declared factually innocent by a government official or organization with authority to make such a declaration.
“If this has not happened, a person can still be exonerated if the person was relieved of all consequences of the criminal conviction by a government official with proper authority, through pardon, acquittal of the charges for which the person was originally convicted, or dismissal of those same charges. In such a case, the pardon, acquittal, dismissal or posthumous exoneration must have been the result, at least in part, of evidence of innocence that either (i) was not presented at the trial at which the person was convicted; or (ii) if the person pled guilty, was not known to the defendant or to the defense attorney and the court at the time the plea was entered.
“The Edenton case was a terrible witch hunt. Regretfully, though, because they do not meet the criteria above, Kelly’s and Privott’s guilty pleas and the dropped charges against Byrum, Stone, and Harris do not fit our definition of an exoneration, and are not listed on the registry for that reason.”
I understand the registry’s need to set the bar so high. But what a curious twist that the defendants’ only hope for exoneration lies with the same state that so unjustly prosecuted them.