How the ‘Witch Hunt’ Myth Undermined American Justice
Jason Berry 07.12.14
Innocent people persecuted by a legal system out of control? In The Witch-Hunt Narrative, Ross E. Cheit argues the media and courts have gone too far in dismissing evidence of abuse....
Accusations of ritual abuse and grisly cult behavior with Satanic overtones have been discussed at conferences on child abuse and treated in research literature since the mid-’80s. Kenneth Lanning, an FBI agent who specialized in child-abuse investigations for many years, found no evidence “of a well-organized Satanic cult” and said so in a research guide. And yet, writes Cheit, even though the FBI guide became Exhibit A for those scoffing at charges of Satanic abuse, “it actually recognized many activities described as ritual abuse and it cautions that there might be plausible explanations for children making such statements in other cases about sexual abuse.”
The absence of a well-organized cult does not mean the absence of ritualized abuse. Cheit provides several pages of numbing case studies on people who were prosecuted, sometimes with testimony from their traumatized children who finally grew old enough to unburden themselves. In Florida, a monster named Eddie Lee Sexton Sr. “ran his family like a cult, subjecting them to the kinds of rituals that...others claim is only imaginary,” Cheit reports. Sexton’s children showed authorities the burial place of an infant he had murdered. “Sexton, who told his children he was the devil, inflicted horrendous torture on his family, including sexual abuse.”
The most controversial case that Cheit explores, and the one he calls “the turning point” in the journalistic development of a witch-hunt narrative, is that of Margaret Kelly Michaels. In 1985, Michaels was arrested on the testimony of children at a New Jersey day-care center where she had worked. An attractive woman in her twenties, Michaels was convicted on 96 of 131 counts, with young children testifying. Michaels took the stand and denied the accusations.
Michaels was imprisoned while awaiting trial. An inmate she befriended would later testify that Michaels told her, “I didn’t mean to hurt those children.” The inmate had already been sentenced and made no deal with prosecutors. Cheit continues:
The jury did not hear additional evidence concerning disturbing sexual behavior in the Michaels family. The state offered evidence about her being groped by her father during an early jail visit. The incident was documented at the time and the prosecution found out about it only because a correctional official in a barbershop was heard talking about it… The judge deemed it too prejudicial to present to the jury....