The McMartin Preschool Trial: Grown Ups Behaving Badly
My post on the Lawndale Thunderbird case has inspired me to write a series a series of blogs on how people deceive themselves and other oddities of the human mind. Or more accurately, the oddities of human perception and how setting and beliefs and preconceptions can colour, and sometimes wildly distort, our view of reality. Yes, as long time readers know, one of the great mysteries of life to me is historical situations where the first question that comes to mind is “What were they thinking?” Battles and even wars have been lost because of a failure to think clearly, among other myriad disasters. One of which is the longest and most expensive trial in US history, a trial that ruined many lives and ultimately resulted in zero convictions. Yes, the trial we’d all like to forget, the McMartin preschool trial.
This story starts off with a quiz. Imagine a day care center. A potential client calls, they are informed there are no vacancies. Despite this, the client shows up at the daycare center and begs for them to admit their child. The center refuses, saying they are already fully booked. The agitated parent then leaves … leaving her child on the front porch of the day care center. Well, gentle reader, what should the daycare center have done at this point?
Sadly, the daycare center chose a compassionate response, and made room for one more child. In retrospect they should have called the police, who would have called social services and taken the child away from the mother and more than likely had her charged with a number of crimes. Why? Well, aside from the fact that it’s the legal thing to do under the circumstances, abandoning a child is a crime; shortly thereafter their new client went to the police and made accusations of child molestation against employees of the daycare center. Nice way to reward the people who compassionately agreed to make room for her child at their school. This disturbed woman’s name was Judy Johnson. It goes downhill from there.
What did the police do? Well, they took her allegations seriously and investigated them, even though some of them were bizarre and the complainant was obviously a little off her rocker. The police didn’t really find anything, so they decided to look further. They sent a letter to 200 parents who had children at the McMartin preschool currently or in the past, explaining that the police were investigating claims of child abuse at the center, and asking parents to question their children about any abuse they might have seen or heard about at the McMartin preschool.
The parents question their children. And what did the children reveal? All sorts of child abuse! Children had been taken into tunnels and abused! Children had been flown in balloons and abused! Animals had been sacrificed, including a giraffe! Children had even been flushed down toilets, abused, then cleaned back up before being returned to their parents! Children had been photographed naked with movies stars! One of the children even identified one of his abusers from a photo lineup as Chuck Norris! In the face of all this horrible abuse, the police went wild and arrested everyone even remotely connected with the McMartin Preschool. The press went wild and uncritically repeated the allegations against the preschool, and the District Attorney, facing a tough reelection campaign, did everything in his power to hype the case and make sure it succeeded in court. Other people with private agendas promoting repressed memory theories and ritual abuse conspiracy theories also got involved. The fact that there was a compete absence of evidence of any sort didn’t faze them one bit. Nor the fact that the woman who had made the original allegations kept her child enrolled in McMartin preschool!
Balloons? Tunnels? A giraffe? Chuck Norris? One would think that cooler heads would have prevailed at some point. Sadly, they didn’t, careers were at stake I suppose, not to mention that plenty of the parents involved had absolutely convinced themselves that their children had been abused. It didn’t help that the prosecution handled the case shamefully and withheld damning evidence from the defence. Seven years, two trials, and 15 million dollars later it was all over … without a single conviction.
Yes, this was the 80s, we know more now so something like this could never happen again. Snort. Sadly this sort of thing is pretty good evidence that despite our ipods and kindles, we haven’t progressed much such the Salem Witch Trials. The modern belief in Satanic ritual abuse is no different and just as illogical as the medieval belief in witchcraft. Then as now though, if authorities promote a belief, however absurd, many people will fall for it hook line and sinker.
Sadly, most people don’t analyze what they hear to determine if it makes sense, they are far more likely to filter what they hear so that it only reinforces their current beliefs. And even sadder, almost every leader in history, religious or political, is far more likely to reinforce this tendency in people rather than encourage them to think for themselves. It’s no wonder the biggest organized sport on the planet is still killing each other over absurdities.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image, being a reproduction of a 19th century painting, is claimed as Public Domain under US copyright law. “Examination of a Witch” (1853) by T. H. Matteson. It was inspired by the Salem Witch trials. Yes, I know, some good did come out of the McMartin trial fiasco, not much though. And just for the record, the idea that a nation-wide conspiracy of Satanists was kidnapping and torturing children was a classic case of mass hysteria.)