Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Costs and benefits of modern “sex crime” witch hunts

People of our present era like to believe that they are sophisticated, intelligent, and incapable of engaging in the kind of witch hunts that made Salem, Massachusetts, famous, yet in the past 30 years American law enforcement and prosecutors have pursued what only could be described as witch hunts, as they have railroaded innocent people into prison for crimes that clearly have not occurred. There are the more famous witch hunts, such as the McMartin and Kern County cases in California, the Little Rascals Case in North Carolina, the Grant Snowden case in Florida, the witch hunt of Wenatchee, Washington, and many more.

In each of these cases, people have been accused of the most sordid and horrible kinds of child molestation, from outright rape to shoving swords into the rectums of children (and, amazingly, leaving absolutely no trace of injury), cooking babies in microwave ovens, engaging in Satanic rituals in the middle of the day at day care centers, throwing children into shark-infested waters, and more. We would like to think that there at least would be some physical or corroborating evidence for such actions, but these “crimes” were pursued even though nothing seemed changed about the children.

Often, the charges seem to be absolutely contrived. In Dade County, Georgia, for example, Brad Wade was accused of sexually molesting a minor on a very short stretch of I-59 while simultaneously driving more than 60 mph. (While he had been driving in from Alabama, the alleged molestation took place only in Georgia.) That might seem a bit strange, but when one realizes that Alabama authorities had recognized that the accusations and their backgrounds (yet another child custody fight) simply did not make sense, so Northwest Georgia authorities, which push nearly every sexual abuse accusation (as long as the accused is not politically-connected), eagerly jumped on the charges and Wade is serving a lengthy sentence in a Georgia prison.

When one steps back and takes a hard look at these cases, it is apparent that the authorities have depended upon mass hysteria and a news media that soaks up every story, no matter how contrived it might be. Because I have no expertise in psychology (except in dealing with four internationally-adopted teenagers in my home), I am reluctant to deal with psychological aspects of witch hunts except to say that people really do come to believe things that physically seem to violate laws of time and space.

I turn, instead, t0 those things where I do have more formal experience, the cost and benefit patterns that accompany these witch hunts, patterns that would interest an economist like me. Accompanying that curiosity are some questions that never seem to be asked when the hysteria breaks out:

* Why is corroborating evidence ignored, even when it absolutely points to the falsity of the charges?

* Are there any overt patterns that are seen time and again when authorities go after people accused of these horrific things?

* Does anyone benefit, financially, professionally, or otherwise, from the pursuing of these charges?

If we can answer these questions, then we also are able to get a clearer picture of why these charges are levied and why the authorities are hellbent on bird-dogging them, even in the face of corroborating evidence that absolutely debunks the accusations. Furthermore, we might get a better sense of why jurors in such cases are likely to convict innocent people.

In the situation of bogus child molestation charges, there really is a Ground Zero: the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act of 1974, commonly known as the Mondale Act. If ever there were an outright federal assault on the Rights of the Accused which came out of Anglo-American Law, it was this law. Congress passed it, of course, because Sen. Walter Mondale (who was up for re-election) claimed that child abuse was epidemic and the federal government had to step in to put an end to this horror.

Now, Mondale was right in saying that there always are horrific cases of child abuse and molestation, and I can say, as one who has been involved in four international adoptions, that such outrages occur inside and outside the USA. No one will dispute that fact. However, the federal “solution” to this problem has been to create huge incentives and moral hazards for false accusations. This is a law that not only eviscerated the Rights of the Accused, but also created incentives for local and state governments to make money and for individuals employed in that system to enhance their own personal prospects.

Economists are fond of saying that incentives matter, and CAPTA and similar laws passed in its wake (including the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and beyond) created numerous financial and personal incentives for police and prosecutors to emphasize these kinds of cases. At the same time, CAPTA lowered the legal threshold for prosecution and denied defendants the right to bring corroborating evidence that might prove exculpatory.

For example, authorities claimed that molested and abused children would be traumatized by having to be in the same courtroom with their alleged abuser, so children often would testify from the judge’s chamber via a closed-circuit television. Such an arrangement only served to make the defendant look to be such a monster that he or she had to be guilty. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this practice, saying that it deprived the defendants of the Sixth Amendment right to face one’s accuser.)

The Mondale Act also told states receiving federal money to eliminate the requirement for corroborating evidence, which mean that the accusation itself would constitute all of the proof needed for a conviction, which lowered the legal standard in criminal cases to something akin to preponderance of the evidence, the civil standard, instead of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The Rape Shield laws, which also have applied to sexual abuse cases, encouraged judges to disallow evidence such as the accuser having a history of making false charges, and the courts also permitted the admission of hearsay evidence, especially when it would benefit the prosecution’s case.

We should not be surprised at the results, as numerous people have been wrongfully convicted for something that never happened. Because American courts tend to overturn convictions on issues of procedure and not guilt or innocence, one can say with certainty that in the United States of America today, actual innocence no longer is a legitimate defense, at least in some kinds of cases. Furthermore, the appeals courts constantly are looking for reasons to impose “finality,” which means that they wash their hands of the evidence and the hard fact that those appealing their convictions might well be innocent.

While it almost is impossible statistically to trace the patterns of accusations and convictions, nonetheless we have seen the development of cost and benefit patterns that have followed in the wake of the changes in how such cases proceed. We should remember that witch hunts don’t occur because people mysteriously become hysterical en mass. They happen, instead, because individuals benefit from making and pursuing these charges, and in the case of so-called sex crimes, the benefits can be huge.

Before looking at the benefits, however, let us examine who bears the costs. People who are accused either must depend upon a public defender or must pay for legal representation from their own resources, and it does not take long for the money spigot to run dry. Tonya Craft literally had close to a million dollars to spend on her defense, and she still ran out of funds before the case even came to trial. In the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case, each of the three defendants had to spend more than $1 million apiece just to try to debunk what were transparently-false charges.

In cases involving child molestation or rape, an ordinary criminal defense attorney usually is not enough, as these are very difficult cases to defend because the accused already has been demonized in the media and by prosecutors, and the laws governing such cases are different than most laws regarding alleged criminal conduct. For example, if one is charged with robbery or murder, an actual robbery or murder must take place, and then the question for the jury is whether or not the defendant is the guilty party.

The sex crime cases, however, have such a low threshold of proof that real-live evidence of such an assault actually having occurred is not needed; all that is necessary is an accusation, and the law provides plenty of incentives for people to make false accusations for purposes of revenge or, in child custody cases, to get the other person out of the way.

The costs can be substantial. I know one attorney who specializes in such cases who requires a down payment up front of $100,000. Since few people keep $100K in spare change, getting the funds is very, very difficult. Then there a experts in forensics, interviewing, and the like who also do not testify for free. One of the reasons that so many people plead to something in such cases is that they do not have the personal resources to fight the charges.

On the benefit side, one only has to think of Janet Reno, Ed Jaegels, Scott Harshbarger (who prosecuted the notorious Fells Acres Case in Massachusetts), and Gary A. Riesen, the Chelan County, Washington, district attorney who was re-elected until his retirement last year by voters despite his “witch hunt” prosecutions. Reno rode her wrongful convictions to the position of U.S. Attorney General, Jaegels has been a conservative icon in California, and Harshbarger rose to prominence in national Democratic Party circles.

Nancy Lamb, who pursued the Little Rascals Case — the most expensive criminal case in the history of North Carolina — was lionized in the media and even now, according to North Carolina’s Judicial District 1 website, remains as a prosecutor who “specializes in child abuse.” In all of these cases, the individual prosecutors benefited from prosecuting innocent people. None had to face lawsuits, and none were brought up before their various state bars for discipline.

Their actions wasted millions of dollars, destroyed individual lives and families, and unnecessarily created real victims. None paid anything resembling a personal price. Likewise, those employed by the various Child Protective Services agencies and the Children’s Advocacy Centers — all of which were created by federal legislation — are immune from lawsuits and face almost no legal scrutiny for their aggressive questioning that literally demands that children “disclose” abuse, even when the children being questioned vociferously deny that any abuse even happened.

When patterns of costs and benefits are so skewed, and when taxpayers are forced to fund witch hunts while individuals are forced to pay for their own defense, we should not be surprised that witch hunts continue to occur on a regular basis. Witch hunts are just one more example of how the political classes of Washington, D.C., in the name of “doing something” actually create situations in which the so-called cure is worse than the disease.

Original report here

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