What passes for a system of criminal justice in this country is positively scary. We’ve all see the stories in which a guy is on death row, or serving life for rape or murder, and DNA evidence proves that he absolutely didn’t do it. It makes you wonder how many other innocents are behind bars. If you’ve seen the system at work, you wonder a lot.
Some time back I wrote a column about Bruce McLaughlin, now in the Loudoun County jail after being convicted of sexually molesting his children. He got thirteen years, which is fine by me — if he did it.
Briefly, he confessed to extramarital affairs to his wife, who thereafter suddenly discovered the abuse of his four children. Criminal charges followed. Medical evidence being lacking, the conviction rested heavily on transcripts of interviews, by Child Protective Services, of the children — who said he did it. Well, sort of said he did it. Who actually said he didn’t do it. Or said mommy said he did it.
I read the transcripts from CPS shortly after the original trial. They stank. As I said at the time, reporters aren’t good at much, but they know a con job when they see it. Everybody tries to con journalists. You come to recognize tendentious, the coached, the craftedly deceptive testimony. Which the transcripts were.
Over and over, the transcripts of the interrogation of the children contain passages like this one:
Stribling [one of the interrogators]: “Is that something you remember?”
Nicholas [McLaughlin’s son]: “I think.”
Leigh [a cop]: “Do you remember it today?
Leigh: When you’re telling me right now, do you remember that happening?”
Nicholas: “Not really.”
Or this. Leigh: “Let me see what else you have here. He had played with my penis. Tell me about that, do you remember that?”
Nicholas: “No. My mom told me that.”
(Italics) His mom told him? (close italics) Coached, maybe?
Over and over, the kids say they don’t remember being sodomized. Then, after insistence and leading by the questioners, with a suspicious consistency they say they do remember. Their testimony reeks of coaching. One, pushed, said McLaughlin had white pubic hair. No.
Curious about all of this, I got one of McLlaughlin’s representatives to send me a transcript they made comparing an actual audio recording of the interviews to the transcrips the jury saw. At one point in it one of the kids twice says the children , “. . . came forward . . .” meaning told adults about the abuse.
Kids don’t say, “I came forward.” It’s adult language. Interestingly, the phrase is omitted in the transcript that the jury saw. Don’t let anybody tell you railroads are dead.
Now, why would CPS produce a deceptive transcript? Because child protective services tend to become highly adversarial. Just as defense attorneys and prosecutors become zealots, just as equal-opportunity watchdogs fill with people who see discrimination everywhere, those in CPS come to have a prosecutorial attitude. It isn’t deliberate. They don’t say to each other, “Let’s imprison an innocent man.” They merely find what the expect to find.
A conclusion: “The interviews with the children are flawed. They show evidence of suggestion on the part of McLaughlin’s wife. They are not properly documented. They are loaded with leading questions (“Let me tell you what I think you’re telling me . . .). There are many indications, especially in the interview with Nicholas, that, in fact, nothing is really remembered.”
The foregoing paragraph isn’t mine. It is from the decision of Michele Anne Gillette of the Virginia Department of Social Services who heard McLaughlin’s appeal. She changed the finding from “Founded” to “Unfounded.” She did it on the grounds that I noticed long ago, that she saw without difficulty, that you would notice if you read the transcripts. The word “fabricated” appears in her analysis.
It’s nuts. A jury, listening to a prosecutor working for the state, found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet the same state, as the Department of Social Services, determined the charges, by a preponderance of the evidence, to be unfounded. A preponderance of the evidence doesn’t constitute a reasonable doubt?
Why is McLaughlin in jail?
This could happen to me or you, gang. McLaughlin is a middle-class lawyer with an ugly divorce. False allegations of abuse of children are a tool of divorce law. In this case Mrs. McLaughlin ran away to New Zealand with the children (in violation of a court order), which makes investigation difficult. It could be any of us. This is how criminal justice works.