Mass child-molestation case appears on verge of collapsing

One of the most unusual prosecutions in recent history - known as the McMartin Preschool mass child-molestation case - continues to take bizarre turns. Among the latest: admission by the chief prosecutor that for 10 months she had withheld from the defense information that cast doubts on the credibility of a key witness, the subsequent death of that witness last weekend, and testimony from a Hollywood screenwriter who is making a film about the case that a former prosecutor agreed to tell the ``inside story'' for $1,000 and 5 percent of the project's profits.

All this is added to what has been an ongoing controversy over pretrial interrogation of child witnesses by the prosecution, possible prompting of youngsters by a team of private psychologists, and alleged ``political'' motivations of the prosecution lawyers.

Originally, there were seven defendants in the case, all connected with the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Two hundred counts of molestation and conspiracy had been lodged against them, many of them involving not only sex abuse but purported instances of satanic ritual and animal slaughter.

But now these counts have been halved and only two defendants remain. And those two - Raymond Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey - continue to seek the dropping of charges before a scheduled Jan. 12 trial date.

The final result could be that the 2-year-old, widely publicized litigation against members of the staff of the southern California day-care center may soon completely collapse.

If it does, the impact could have national ramifications for sex-abuse prosecutions, say some legal experts in children's cases.

On the one hand, there is the danger that the falling apart of the McMartin case could discourage some legitimate claims of molestation of children.

But on the other, lawyers and child-protection agencies may be prodded to shore up cases based on flimsy evidence and more sharply hone their prosecutorial techniques.

Judge Marshall P. Young of the Seventh Judicial Circuit in South Dakota, who also serves as president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, says the complications of the California case and a recently failed prosecution of another highly publicized Minnesota child-abuse case will make the public and the legal community ``a little more skeptical.''

He adds, ``One consequence will be that some verdicts will come in `not guilty' which shouldn't. But on the plus side, it will put more prosecutors to the burden of proof ... make them evaluate their cases more carefully. It won't let people get involved in so-called `witch hunts.'''

The McMartin case was emotion-clad from the beginning.

Parents of youngsters in the now closed preschool have appeared on national television describing - often in lurid detail - how McMartin teachers and staff had allegedly molested their young children and threatened their lives if they reported these incidents to their families or others.

But the defendants repeatedly protested total innocence and complained that they were being prejudged in the press and in the community.

Controversy arose over whether the children would be allowed to testify in open court and, if they were not, whether the prosecution's case would be valid.

Meanwhile, last January, the Los Angeles County district attorney dropped the charges against most of the defendants, claiming that the ``evidence against them was very weak.''

However, prosecutions against the Buckeys proceeded until recently, when it was revealed that Hollywood screenwriters Abby and Myra Mann had enlisted the services of former McMartin prosecutor Glenn Stevens, who had resigned earlier in a dispute.

The Manns made a controversial television docudrama in 1985, based on mass child murders in the Atlanta area, in which they took issue with the conviction in the case.

Now they are planning a book and a movie on the McMartin case with the help of Stevens, who says that he now believes that all seven defendants are innocent.

Last week, chief prosecutor Lael Rubin admitted in a pretrial hearing that she was ``negligent'' in withholding information about the possible mental instability of Judy Johnson, mother of one of the alleged molested children and a key complainant in the case. On Friday, Mrs. Johnson's body was found in her Manhattan Beach home. Investigation into the cause of her death is in progress.

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