It was the longest criminal trial in American history and ended without a single conviction. Five people have been charged with child sexual abuse based on extremely flimsy evidence. Some parents began to believe strange stories about ritual abuse and tunnels under the kindergarten. It is not surprising that the McMartin case, once called the largest case of “mass harassment” in history, began to be called a witch hunt. Former Times reporter Clyde Haberman, in a comment to Retro Report earlier this month, repeated his view that the case was a witch hunt and spawned a wave of other “suspicious origin” cases. But does this statement give the right to the truth?
A careful examination of the court records reveals that the witch hunt narrative about the McMartin case is a powerful but not entirely true story. For starters, critics have hidden the facts surrounding the origin of the case. Richard Beck, quoted as an expert in the Retro Report story, recently claimed that the McMartin case began when Judy Johnson “went to the police” to claim that her child had been molested. Fellow writer Debbie Nathan, quoted by Retro Report, went further, suggesting that ”everyone has overlooked the fact that Judy Johnson is psychotic.”
But the Manhattan Coast Guard didn’t start this case with Judy Johnson’s word. Instead, they were impressed by the medical evidence of anal trauma on her son. Johnson did not come to the police station on August 12; after examining his son, he went to the family doctor, who referred him to the Emergency Room. That doctor recommended that the child be examined by a specialist. The pediatric specialist is the one who informed the Manhattan Beach Police Department that “the victim’s anus was forcibly entered a few days ago.”
Judy Johnson died of alcohol poisoning in 1986, and this made her an easy target for those who supported the witch hunt narrative, but there is no evidence that she was “psychotic” three years ago. A profile in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, published after Johnson died, made it clear in 1983 that he was “strong and healthy” and was “constantly jogging and eating healthy food.” March February and March 1984, a lot of strange things were said by parents. But this does not mean that even then, let alone half a year ago, they were all “psychotic”. The case didn’t start with a lecture by a legendary crazy woman.
Retro Report also disposed of the extensive medical evidence in the McMartin case with a single allegation that there was no “conclusive” evidence. But defense attorney Danny Davis allowed that the genital injuries to a girl were “serious and credible.” (His primary argument against the jury was that most of the time this girl attended McMartin was out of timeout.) Vaginal injuries in another girl, one of three who participated in both McMartin trials, were identified as evidential by a pediatrician. sexual abuse “up to a medical certainty”. Were the Retro Report reporter and the confirmators aware of this evidence?
None of this is to defend the charges against the five (possibly six) teachers in the case. There is also no confirmation of the claims of some parents that a large number of children are being ritually abused. Rather, it is a defense to treat the case as something that has arisen over time, and not as an undifferentiated heap of children, but as individuals. It seems that in both cases there are convincing reasons for jurors to vote in favor of a guilty verdict on some issues. These facts do not fit into the witch hunt narrative. Instead, they depict the reality of a complex case.
When all the evidence in a child sex abuse case is overshadowed by the story of prosecutorial redundancy, children are the ones sold cheaply by the media. That’s exactly what Retro Report did earlier this month. The injustices in the McMartin case were significant, many were directed at the defendants, and the story has been told many times. But there were also a number of credible pieces of evidence of misconduct that should not have been ignored or erased from history for getting in the way of a good story.
The witch hunt narrative has replaced all the complicated facts about the McMartin case, and Retro Report, whose task is to debunk media myths, has firmly taken its place on the side of the myth. It wasn’t all a witch hunt.