The Satanic Panic's most infamous case was probably the McMartin Preschool Trial, but the Kern County Ritual Abuse case preceded it. The McMartin defendants faced a trial which besmirched their reputations, traumatized the supposed victims, and cost a fortune in tax money- - but they were at least cleared legally. The key defendants in Bakersfield, Kern County served more than a decade of their centuries-long sentences for crimes that never happened, and as such their trial makes an even more compelling statement about the dangers of failing to apply reason to claims of criminal activity.
Understand this: Alvin and Debbie McCuan and Scott and Brenda Kniffen, two couples, were incarcerated in 1983 and released in 1996 on evidence that should never have seen the inside of a courtroom. Others spent even more time in prison. Furthermore, a rash of trials followed this one; some of the convicted have never been released, despite ample evidence for, at the very least, a retrial. Finally, the very real problem of child sexual abuse became entangled, in many people's minds, with the fantasy of Satanic Ritual Abuse. I do not see how this serves the many survivors of actual violations.
In 1980, The McCuan's daughter, Becky, reported child sexual abuse by her grandfather. Medical evidence backed her claim, though the man faced no formal charges. Debbie McCuan's step-mother, Mary Ann Barbour pressed the matter, and attempted to gain custody of her granddaughters-- which she did, successfully. So far as we know, she then developed the notion that a sex-abuse ring existed in her community, which was run by a Satanic Cult. By this point, books such as the fraudulant Michelle Remembers had promulgated the notion that such groups existed, and had existed for decades.
An investigation followed.
The girls were repeatedly questioned, and increasingly bizarre tales of child pornography, torture, and child sexual abuse emerged. No corroborating evidence was ever found. The rooms where the torture took place, for example, lacked the alleged wall-hooks and devices, or evidence that such things ever existed. The girls' bodies bore no signs of physical and sexual trauma. The locations where the Satanists supposedly buried bodies had neither bodies nor recently disturbed earth.
Two other residents who had been implicated were tried first. They introduced medical records attesting to Ms. Barbour's history of mental disturbances. While charges were dropped, the medical records were sealed and could not be used in the trials which followed.
Meanwhile, after extensive questioning, the Kniffens' two sons began telling tales of abuse which resembled those of the McCuen girls. Increasingly, more people were arrested, and more children interrogated. Significantly, while the children's testimony was introduced as evidence, most medical examinations would not be. This seems very odd, given that sexual abuse of the sort described would necessarily leave physical evidence. The only real medical evidence was presented by a Dr. Bruce Woodling, who testified only to a positive result of an anal wink test. He claimed this indicated that sodomy had taken place. In fact, the test indicates no such thing, and is no longer admissible as evidence of abuse.
The McCuens and Kniffens were tried and convicted. A handful of others would follow them. In addition to the lack of physical evidence, the relevant children could produce neither consistent accounts of the abuse nor accurate descriptions of many of the key locations.
As the trials and convictions increased, the children began accusing some of the interrogating social workers and justice officials of involvement in the abuse ring. At this point, investigators began to find the testimony less reliable. B.A. Robinson notes the similarity between these events and those in the Salem Witch Trials; people started questioning the accusations once they began to implicate people believed to be above reproach.
In 1986, a Grand Jury investigation revealed 23 procedural errors in the Kern County cases, and raised questions about the methods used to elicit the children's testimony. Despite this finding, most of those convicted remained in jail.
The grown children would later claim they were threatened and yelled at in order to produce stories of abuse. In fact, when they were separated from their interrogators, they told other adults that the stories were false. This testimony was never permitted in court. According to a 1996 Justice Committee New Release, "questioning in Bakersfield went far beyond the definition of leading and was, in fact, coercive, threatening, brainwashing" (Hopkins). Children were told that they had been abused; interrogators often described the abuse to them. They were asked the same questions repeatedly, until they gave suitable answers. That some of the children cried to be reunited with their parents was not considered important (Hume).
Nearly all of the children have recanted their allegations, and even participated in the efforts to free the accused. One alleged victim, Carol Ann Bittner would say, in a sworn affidavit, that she "received far more brutal treatment at the hands of" the interrogators than from anyone accused. She notes:
- I lost the security of my home
- I lost my mother, she was placed in a prison
- I lost my grandpa, he was placed in prison
- I lost my grandma, she was placed in prison where she died.
- Jeff Modahl who my mother and us kids were living with at the time was also sent to prison.
The McCuan girls stand by the original stories. Apart from the fact that one of these girls, at least, was probably abused earlier by a lone paedophile, one cannot help but note that they were raised, for most of their lives, by the woman who instigated the case. A boy in one of the related cases also maintains that he was sexually abused, though he cannot recall the details. It is worth noting that this individual had contact with defendant Grant Self, who has prior convictions for such offenses.
By 1999, all convictions had been overturned. Civil lawsuits continue against various officials in Kern County.
The case inspired a made-for-tv movie, Just Ask My Children (2001) and a documentary, Witch Hunt (2007)
Carol Ann Bittner. Affidavit. http://users.erols.com/mpeters5/witness.htm
Carol Hopkins. News Release. The Justice Committee. 625 Broadway, Suite 1111, San Diego, 1996.
"Protesting Modern Witchhunts." 1997. http://www.rickross.com/reference/satanism/satanism11.html
Edward Humes. Mean Justice excerpt. http://www.edwardhumes.com/books/mean/index.shtml#witchhunt
"Jeffrey Modhal: Conviction Without Evidence." http://users.erols.com/mpeters5/kmod2.html
Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and The Making of A Modern American Witch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
B.A. Robinson. Bakesfield, Kern County CA Ritual Abuse Cases. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_baker.htm