By: Nat Hentoff
Columnist Nat Hentoff On Getting It Right
The Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School held a
conference in November on the
national epidemic of child-sex-abuse cases at day-care centers
and schools that had – from the 1980s on – resulted in
long prison sentences for those convicted in these highly
Present were lawyers, judges, and some of the accused who have
since been proved innocent. I was one of the two journalists on
the panel because I covered a number of those cases in stories
that revealed how children, many from 3 to 5 years old, were
manipulated by prosecutors and their investigators – while the press,
with all too few exceptions, believed the children’s testimony.
Referring to the Salem witch trials, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Louis Brandeis once said that the judges in 1692 Massachusetts
prosecuted witches, “but burnt women.” At these present-day
trials, very young children testified they had been cooked in a
microwave oven, seen babies murdered by their tormenters, and
been taken for orgies on spaceships around the moon. And
prosecutors, juries, and judges – seeing nothing too
aberrational in such testimony – locked up the defendants.
In a New Jersey case, Kelly Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in
prison on the basis of testimony by 3- to 5-year-olds at the Wee
Care Day Nursery. At the time, New York Times columnist
Anna Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, urged her
readers to believe the children. Other reporters joined the
chorus, except for Dorothy Rabinowitz in Harper’s Magazine
and Debbie Nathan and this writer in The Village Voice.
I got the transcripts of sessions when social workers and
investigators for the prosecution leaned hard on the child
witnesses before Michaels’ trial: “If you help us, you will be
helping to keep her in jail longer so that she doesn’t hurt
anybody else. … Let’s get done with this quick so we can go and
get your Popsicles.” Some of the kids kept saying nothing had
happened – until they gave in.
Similarly, in North Carolina, Robert Kelly, head of the Little
Rascals day-care center, was sentenced to 12 consecutive life
terms. Children testified they had been forced to urinate and
defecate on each other – and have sex with each other.
Again, the press, like the judges and juries, did not seriously
question how this “evidence” was obtained.
Kelly and the other day-care workers sent to prison were finally
released and exonerated, due in large part to a TV series on
Public Broadcasting System’s “Frontline” by Ofra Bikel, who
brought unsparing light to the state of North Carolina. When the
lead prosecutor very reluctantly let go of the last case, she
accused Bikel’s reporting of having tainted the evidence. Of
course, Bikel had shown exactly how the prosecution had produced
At the Harvard Law School, the other journalist on the panel was
Dorothy Rabinowitz. After she broke open the Kelly Michaels case, she
moved to The Wall Street Journal and went on to do the
investigative work that the prosecutors should have done in
similar cases. She doesn’t do just one or two pieces. She stays
on these cases as long as it takes, sometimes years.
Rabinowitz was truly heroic in going into Wenatchee, Wash., a
town out of a Stephen King novel. Along with child-protection
services, town officials – with one exception –
unquestioningly supported a police officer who kept arresting
members of a “sex ring” allegedly preying on very young children.
And indeed, after much pressure, children testified to the kinds
of bizarre abuses that figured in cases in other areas.
Rabinowitz, alone in the town, kept digging into the story while
being treated as a pariah until her dispatches in The Wall
Street Journal brought reporters from other newspapers into
Wenatchee to echo her work. She then helped round up volunteer
lawyers to appeal the convictions of the victims of this police
officer who would have been at home in 17th-century Salem.
At Harvard Law School, Rabinowitz said that the most satisfying
result of her work was not only the freeing of the prisoners but
also the remarkable response of readers from around the country
who sent in checks for defendants who did not have pro bono
lawyers and otherwise expressed their rage at these rampant
injustices. It proves, she said, that the press – when it’s
awake – can redeem its lazy practitioners.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which had been very late
in covering the Wenatchee story, in a March 3, 1998, editorial
– after excoriating the state and local bar associations,
the ACLU, the child- protection services, and the state
Commission on Judicial Conduct for their silence – asked:
“Where was the traditionally boldest watchdog of all – the
news media – as the story brewed in Wenatchee, a story far
more important and plausible than the tale of a crazed child sex
All it took was getting the transcripts of the trials and
exploring the connections among the cops, the investigators, the
child-protection agencies, the prosecutors – and the
“evidence.” And it’s still important because, as a lawyer at
Harvard said, these cases haven’t stopped.
Nat Hentoff is a writer for The Village Voice. His “Getting It Right” column appears monthly in E&P.
Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.