- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

What passes for a system of criminal justice in this country is positively scary. We've all read the stories about men on death row, or serving life for rape or murder, who were proven innocent by DNA tests.

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 13 years, which is fine by me if he did it.

Here is what happened: He confessed to his wife that he had extramarital affairs. His wife suddenly discovered his four children had been abused. Criminal charges followed.

There was no medical evidence against him. His conviction rested heavily on transcripts of interviews of the children, conducted by the county's Child Protective Services, in which the children said McLaughlin molested them. Well, they sort of said he did, then they said he didn't, then they 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 coached, crafty, deceptive testimony which the transcripts were.

The transcripts contain passages like this one:

One of the protective service interrogators asked: "Is that something you remember?"

Nicholas [McLaughlin's son]: "I think."

Leigh [a cop]: "Do you remember it today?"

Nicholas: "Huh?"

Leigh: "When you're telling me right now, do you remember that happening?"

Nicholas: "Not really."

Or this passage:

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."

His mom told him?

Over and over, the children say they don't remember being sodomized. Then, after insistence and leading questions 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. Not true.

Curious about all of this, I got one of McLaughlin's representatives to send me a transcript they made comparing an actual audio recording of the interviews to the transcripts the jury saw. At one point, one of the children twice says they "came forward," meaning they told adults about the abuse.

Children don't say, "I came forward." That's adult language.

Interestingly, the phrase is omitted in the transcript the jury saw. Don't let anybody tell you railroads are dead.

Now, why would CPS produce a deceptive transcript?

Because child protective service agencies tend to become highly adversarial. Just as defense attorneys and prosecutors become zealots, just as equal-opportunity watchdogs 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 they expect to find.

A conclusion: The interviews with the children are flawed. They show evidence of coaching by 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 previous 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. The word "fabricated" appears in her analysis.

Not that it did McLaughlin much good.

A jury, listening to a prosecutor working for the state, found McLaughlin guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet the same state's Department of Social Services, which oversees the CPS, determined the charges to be unfounded by a preponderance of the evidence.

A preponderance of the evidence doesn't constitute a reasonable doubt?

Why is McLaughlin in prison?

This could happen to me or you, gang. McLaughlin is a middle-class lawyer involved in an ugly divorce. False accusations of child abuse 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. This makes a reinvestigation of McLaughlin's case difficult.

This is how criminal justice works.

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