The McMartin Preschool Trial

The McMartin Preschool Trial is considered to be the most expensive trial in United History costing around $15 million. After the initial accusation in 1983, the trial ended in 1990 making it the longest trial in United States History. In the end, there were no convictions and all charges were dropped. So where and how did this all go wrong?

Background 

The McMartin Preschool Trial was a trial prosecuted by the Los Angeles District Attorney for alleged day care sexual abuse. The McMartin family operated a preschool in California and were accused of sexual abuse by the children who attended the school.

Initial Allegations – 1983 

In August of 1983, a mother of one of the students, Judy Johnson pointed out to her doctor that she believed her son was anally penetrated. Her son identified the adult male as “Mr. Ray” from the McMartin Preschool. Ray Buckley was the grandson of the school’s found Virginia McMartin. There are conflicting reports on whether or not the son agreed with the fact that he was being sexually abused.

Johnson also accused the staff at the school of other acts including sex with animals and witchcraft such as flying. After being questioned Ray Buckley was arrested but was quickly released due to lack of evidence. There was also concern that Johnson’s son was too young to testify in court. This led to the police to send a form letter to all the parents of the students at the McMartin school. The letter said that their child might have been abused and that the parents should question their children about it. You can read the full transcript of the letter here. From this letter, 8 families stepped forward in the allegations of child abuse. Other families came forward with “possible abuse”.

Pretrial Investigations – 1984 to 1987 

Johnson was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia and was found dead in her home in 1986 from complications due to chronic alcoholism. She died before the preliminary hearing.

Several hundred children were interviewed by the Children’s Institute International which is an abuse therapy clinic located in Los Angeles. During this time it was being run by Kee MacFarlane. They faced criticism for their techniques when interviewing children for being highly suggestive and to have children use their imagination about certain events. In the Spring of 1984, it was estimated that 360 children were abused at the McMartin Preschool. Medical examinations were performed and photos were taken of tiny scarring that looked like it could be from anal penetration. In the end, 41 children testified before the grand jury.

Furthermore, some of the allegations against the McMartin Preschool included satanic ritual abuse. Other accusations included witchcraft, flying, underground tunnels, and hot air balloon rides. A lot of the sexual abuse happened in these underground tunnels. However, upon investigation, no such underground tunnels were found. Other allegations included a game called “naked movie star” which was believed to be when the children would be photographed naked by the teachers. During the trial, the game was nothing more than a silly rhyme between children.

Michael P. Mahoney, an expert witness in clinical psychology was highly critical of how the children were interviewed. He referred to them as “improper, coercive, directive, problematic and adult-directed in a way that forced the children to follow a rigid script.” The recordings of these interviews played a huge part in why the jury did not opt to convict anyone.

Also during this time, there were issues with the prosecution office withholding evidence from the criminal defense team. Such evidence included the fact that Johnson was a schizophrenic. One of the original prosecutors left the case for moral and ethical reasons. He also accused the district attorney of lying to the courts and the defense team by withholding exonerating evidence against Ray Buckey.

Trial – 1987 to 1990

Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey, Peggy Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor, and Babette Spitler were all charged with 115 counts of child abuse involving 48 children. When a new district attorney was assigned to the case, the charges were dropped against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor and Babette Spitler.

Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin Buckey were the only ones who remained in custody. Peggy McMartin’s bail was $1 million and Ray Buckey had been denied bail.

During the trial, inmate George Freeman was called to the stand and claimed that Ray Buckey confessed while they shared a cell. It was revealed that Freeman had perjured himself in several cases in exchange for favorable treatment for his criminal cases.

In 1990, after three years of testimony, and nine weeks of deliberation, the jury acquitted Peggy McMartin Buckey on all accounts. Ray Buckey, on the other hand, was cleared of 52 of 65 counts and was finally granted bail. At a press conference following the trial, the jurors believed that the children had been molested but the evidence did not prove that it had happened beyond a reasonable doubt.

The remaining 13 counts against Buckey were retried which led to a hung jury again with a majority of the votes leading to not guilty. The prosecution decided to stop trying to get a conviction and all charges were dropped. It’s important to note that he was in jail for 5 years without ever receiving a conviction.