Margaret Kelly Michaels Trial and Appeal: 1987 & 1993
Margaret Kelly Michaels Trial and
Appeal: 1987 & 1993
Defendant: Margaret Kelly Michaels
Crimes Charged: Aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of children, and terroristic threats
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harvey Meltzer and Robert Clark
Chief Prosecutors: Glenn Goldberg and Sara Sencer McArdle
Judge: William A. Harth
Chief Lawyers for Appeal: Morton Stavis and William Kunstler
Chief Prosecutor: Clifford Minor
Place: Newark, New Jersey
Dates of Trial: June 22, 1987-April 15, 1988
Sentence: 47 years imprisonment (5 years served)
Date of Appeals Court Decision: March 26, 1993
Decision: Verdict overturned on the basis that the defendant received an unfair trial
SIGNIFICANCE: The reversal of Kelly Michaels's conviction on appeal reflected a concern with the techniques used to obtain testimony from the young children in this sexual abuse case—an issue raised in other highly publicized abuse trials.
During the 1980s, the Unites States saw a wave of sensational trials involving alleged sexual abuse of children at day-care centers and preschools. The press reported often-lurid charges of bizarre sexual practices committed by daycare workers against toddlers. One child or parent's charge of abuse often snowballed into dozens. Sometimes the allegations involved satanic worship and the ritualistic slaughter of animals. In many cases, prosecutors had little or no physical evidence—just the testimony of small children, some of whom seemed quite loving toward their supposed abusers.
Critics believed the defendants were accused on the flimsiest of evidence, and that young witnesses were coaxed and coached by parents, prosecutors, and child abuse experts. They were concerned that the alleged crimes had no basis in reality. Some journalists and defense lawyers compared the sexual abuse cases to the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of the 1950s.
In 1985, Margaret Kelly Michaels found herself trapped in one of these controversial cases. The year before, Michaels had taken a job at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey. An aspiring actress, Michaels had always considered the job temporary, and she left Wee Care the following April. She had been considered a good employee, earning a promotion and working well with the children. But a few days after Michaels's departure, suspicions arose about her conduct at the nursery.
From Questions to Indictments
On April 30, 1985, a four-year-old boy who attended Wee Care visited his doctor. During an examination, the nurses took his temperature with a rectal thermometer. "That's what my teacher does to me at nap time at school," the boy said. The teacher he was referring to was Kelly Michaels. The boy's comments prompted his mother to call the New Jersey Division of Family and Youth Services. The boy was also questioned by Assistant Prosecutor Sara Sencer McArdle, head of the Essex County Child Abuse unit.
In that interview, the boy said that Michaels had touched other boys as well. Subsequently, these children were also questioned. One said Michael had touched his penis. A few weeks later, parents of the children attending Wee Care were told by New Jersey authorities to watch for "danger signs" of abuse. Later the parents were instructed to record their observations in a journal. Soon, a deepening pattern of alleged abuse evolved. In June, Michaels was indicted on six counts of child abuse; she pleaded innocent to all charges.
Sexual abuse experts questioned the children, letting them demonstrate with anatomically correct dolls. The children used the dolls to indicate where they had been touched. The charges against Michaels continued to grow including accusations that she played "Jingle Bells" on the piano while naked; she made the children take off all their clothes and roll around on kitchen utensils spread on the floor; and she licked peanut butter off the children's genitals. By December 1985, the indictments reached 235 counts of abuse against 31 children.
Michaels continued to assert her innocence. She noted that none of the children had ever lodged complaints against her while she worked at Wee Care. And she had never spent enough time alone with all the children to carry out some of the more unusual practices she had allegedly committed. Michaels also passed a lie detector test when she was first questioned by police. Still, prosecutors believed the children's stories and pressed on with the case.
Michaels on Trial
The trial began on June 22, 1987. By now, the charges had been reduced to 163 counts involving 19 children. According to trial rules in force at the time, the jury did not have to believe everything the children said to find their testimony credible. Judge William Harth allowed the children to testify via closed-circuit television, a common practice in child sexual abuse trials. But he refused to let defense psychologists interview the children.
One key witness for the prosecution was psychologist Eileen Treacy. She introduced the concept of Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome and testified that many of the Wee Care children showed symptoms of it. She called them "the most traumatized group of children" she had ever seen.
Michaels's defense lawyers tried to raise doubts about the whole process used to extract testimony from the children. Their star witness, Dr. Ralph Underwager, argued that children can easily be coaxed to tell their questioners what they want to hear. However, ultimately the jury believed there was enough evidence against her and on April 15, 1988, Michaels was found guilty on 115 charges. She was later sentenced to 47 years in prison and denied bail pending appeal.
A Legal Rescue
A number of journalists chronicled the Michaels trial and the controversy that surrounded sexual abuse cases such as hers. One of these reporters was Dorothy Rabinowitz. She wrote a lengthy article for Harper's magazine detailing some of the more questionable tactics used by the prosecution against Michaels. The article caught the attention of Morton Stavis, a founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Working pro bono, Stavis and a team of law students prepared an appeal for Michaels.
Stavis died in December 1992 before completing the appeal motion. Well-Known defense lawyer William Kunstler then took over the case. The appellate brief raised nine points. These included arguments that Michaels was denied due process, since defense experts could not question the children; that Eileen Treacy's testimony was not scientifically sound; and that the questioning of the children was suggestive and coercive.
On March 26, 1993, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey overturned Michaels's conviction. The three-judge panel ruled that Treacy's testimony about Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome was improperly used by the prosecution. The judges also criticized Judge Harth for his actions during the children's testimony, during which he had sat some of them on his lap, whispered in their ears, and played ball with them. The appellate judges said, "The required atmosphere of the bench's impartiality was lost in this trial."
Michaels was released on bail on March 30, but her case was not over. Essex County Prosecutor Clifford Minor asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to consider an appeal of the appellate decision. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, 45 social scientists backed the defense assertion that the children's testimony against Michaels was unreliable.
On June 24, 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the appellate decision, agreeing that the "interrogations that occurred in this case were improper and there is a substantial likelihood that the evidence derived from them is unreliable." The court also said that prosecutors would have to show "clear and convincing evidence" that the questioning methods had produced reliable testimony before asking for a possible retrial. In December 1994, prosecutor Minor decided against a retrial.
Margaret Kelly Michaels has joined a number of other defendants in child sexual abuse cases who have been acquitted or had convictions overturned—but only after suffering years of public personal agony.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Fasion, Seth. "Child-Abuse Conviction of Woman is Overturned." New York Times (March 27, 1993): 26.
Gray, Jerry. "Trenton Court Assails '88 Trial of Day-Care Aide." New, York Times (June 24, 1994): B5.
Nathan, Debbie and Michael Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Wlitch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Rabinowitz, Dorothy. "From the Mouth of Babes to a Jail Cell." Harper's (May 1990): 52-63.
Sanderson, Bill. "Day-Care Abuse Case Dropped." The Record (December 3, 1994): Al.