The New Scarlet Letter

October 21, 2006

News & Commentary

Wrongful Abuse Accusations Never Go Away

By RICHARD MEEHAN With ANDY THIBAULT
The Cool Justice Report
http://www.cooljustice.blogspot.com
Oct. 21, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com

News item with screaming headline and less than flattering mug shot:

A 40-year-old engineer, arrested and accused of sexually assaulting his three-year-old daughter, has been released on $100,000 bond.

What is the reaction of the typical reader?

Repulsion.

Guilty!

Hang him. Fry him. Gas him.

In a system of laws that exalts the presumption of innocence, the accusation of child molestation, once made, is never eradicated. When a jury acquits because there was not sufficient proof, doubt about the character of the acquitted lingers. A fair percentage of those that even see the follow-up article announcing the acquittal believe the jury made a mistake; this, despite not hearing a minute of the evidence produced at the trial.

Along with public condemnation comes the loss of employment and the inability to find other work. Many cannot even post the high bonds that accompany this type of accusation.

The accused finds the presumption is guilt – not innocence.

Neighbors and friends shun the accused. Court orders often even prohibit the accused from access to his own children. Marital relationships are strained to the breaking point.

But, who really cares?

Once accused, this defendant is now a pariah. In an era where most of us gain our knowledge of the news from 15-second sound bites or a quick perusal of the headlines, where does the concept of innocent unless proven guilty really fit?

It has become all too common a tactic in contentious divorce and custody cases for allegations of sexual abuse to be bandied recklessly about for tactical gain. Children can be influenced by parental coaching to come to actually believe a false accusation. Unsophisticated investigators not familiar with the protocol of an accepted forensic interview can reinforce the suggestibility of the child. Although well meaning, interviewers who have not been properly trained in conducting non-suggestive forensic interviews of child complainants pollute the investigation, actually obscuring the truth.

Weeks of trial and thousands of dollars in legal fees later the occasional accused is acquitted; but what about the court of public opinion? Can there ever be an acquittal there? How does the acquitted defendant regain his reputation?

Two clients my firm defended recently won acquittals in just such cases. In both instances each man’s life was nearly destroyed, jobs lost, friends gone.. One of these men fought back. He retained a well-known civil rights attorney and sued his accuser — his former paramour — and won a multi-million dollar verdict. The second fellow is planning to follow the same course. The judgments probably will not be collected — at least in dollars and cents — but the gain is the vindication of a hard earned good name.

Recently, a 59-year-old bachelor living with his elderly parents was brutally murdered in his own home in the presence of his 87-year-old mother.

His neighbor, a young patent lawyer, was told by his wife that their two-year-old was molested by the neighbor. The young lawyer allegedly vaulted his way through a screen window and repeatedly stabbed the middle-aged neighbor until he died.

A clever defense lawyer immediately plants the seed in the media that the young father was spurned to act because his daughter had been abused. Every red-blooded American Dad thinks, “I would have done the same if he did that to my little girl.”

A man lies dead, no trial of the accusation that spurned on his assailant. The assailant’s vigilante justice is initially applauded. But what if it was wrong? What if the information he acted on was imagined or fabricated?

As the case received national attention, the family of the victim had the foresight to realize that unless the allegation of abuse was thoroughly investigated, the “Scarlet Letter” of child abuse would be the victim’s only legacy. The investigating police department conducted a diligent search of the home and undertook a thorough investigation. This month, they announced that the accusation of child abuse was unfounded.

I represent the family of this victim. During one of many press interviews following the announcement, one reporter remarked to me that the exoneration of someone suspected of child abuse never receives this extensive press coverage — little comfort for the family of the man who bled to death in his home.

In the months to come the criminal trial and wrongful death lawsuit will play out in the courtroom and the press like an ancient Greek tragedy. In the end, two families will see their lives destroyed.

Vigilante justice is no justice at all. There was no investigation, no trial no jury, just the visceral reaction of an angry father. More died that day than just this poor soul.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim’s corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Thibault also serves as a consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Website, http://www.andythibault.com and Blog, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com

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