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The
McMartin Preschool Trial that started in 1983 and prolonged to the 1990s in
Manhattan Beach, California, is considered in the legal literature as one of
the most controversial cases in the history of child molestation trials (Wyatt
29-30). During the trial, Children were examined by psychologies who applied
techniques considered to have been inappropriate yielded reports supporting the
accusations of rape, oral copulation, fondling, and ritual abuse done in
tunnels underneath the preschool. Current research has established that the
claims of child molestation and ritual abuse by the children were fabricated,
in spite of some scholars believing that the abuses did occur (Wyatt 29-30). By
1997 when the case was finally closed, it is estimated to have cost around $15
million to put the seven accused persons on trial. In general, the trial
created lingering clouds of suspicion over schools and significant social
panic, which influenced public discourses and policymaking regarding the
practices of both the child protection communities and the judicial system.
This paper analyzes the social, economic, and political aspects that McMartin
Preschool Trial had on the society at that time.

Background
of the Trial

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The
McMartin Preschool Trial was a high profile seven-year trial that started in
1984 involving 48 children who accused a preschool proprietor, Ray Buckey, of
child molestation. They also accused him of involving them in satanic rituals
inside a tunnel (Garven 348). Psychologists who cross-examined the children
identified indicators of child abuse, which were admitted as evidence against
Ray Buckey, his mother Peggy McMartin-Buckey in addition to five other women
employed at the preschool (Wyatt 29-30). The children also revealed satanic
rituals and even claimed that the accused had frequently taken them to an
underground tunnel to perform the rituals. In all, seven teachers, among them
some elderly women, were charged with molesting hundreds of children over a
10-year period. The court underwent “3 hung juries” as claims made by the
children were considered peculiar, dubious, and not in agreement with the
evidence. Ultimately, the truth was revealed, when the alleged molested
children started confessing that their claims were “make-believe.” The claims
had wholly been fabricated, with the help of psychologists who conducted the
interviews. When the trial was eventually closed, the court concluded that
Buckey, his mother, and their day-care personnel had erroneously been accused
of child molestation. All charges were dropped (Garven 348).

Social
Effects of the Trial

The
McMartin Preschool Trial triggered nationwide panic regarding child safety in
schools. A documentary by the New York Times that attempted to recount the
events of the crime revealed that after the trial, one of the investigation
reports provided horrific details, with the devil often literally in the
details, which through the public into panic mode. Public anger over
allegations of sexual predation and Satanism were compared to similar events,
such as the Salem witch trials (Herberma 1).

 The spread of panic led to public distrust,
whereby people started suspecting their neighbors of involvement in satanic
rituals. Media organizations shared blames and spread the panic, particularly
after local television stations started reporting the allegations. Ultimately,
the media transformed from being an observer into an accuser, and rather than
probe methods used by therapeutic professionals, the police and the dubious
evidence extracted from the children, they published any conspiracy theory that
fuelled social panic. The media created an elevated sense of panic. According
to Fukurai et al. (45), one claim by the media was that the preschool might have
been involved in child pornography. Fukurai et al. (45) provide valid
peer-reviewed evidence based on a review of the social effects of the trial,
such as mass hysteria. The researchers examined primary data based on video
recordings of the trial and interviews of the children. Overall, such attempts
by the media had disastrous effects as media houses forgot their ethical values
of fair reporting and started scuttling to outdo one other by looking for any
evidence to portray Raymond Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey as monsters. When
the New York Times interviewed Raymond Buckey in 2014 (when he was in his
mid-50s), he said that he had always wanted “to be left alone,” and turned down
attempts by “mindless” local media stations, such as the Retro Report, to
interview him. The trial had a lasting effect on how teachers or adults,
related to children (Fukurai et al. 45). According to a report by the New York
Times, teachers across the country started to avoid hugging or touching their
students. The purpose was to avoid being misunderstood or being charged with
sexual abuse. This tendency was particularly triggered by the turn of the event
during the trial when a widely held opinion that children do not lie about
sexual abuse and ritual abuse directed the events of the trial (Herberma 1).

Economic
Effects of the Trial

The
trial led to significant expenditures by the media, the prosecution, and the
accused. The media is largely blamed for framing the McMartin child molestation
trial making it one of the most expensive criminal jury trials in the history
of the United States. The prosecution is estimated to have spent between $15
and $16 million over the six-year period of the trial (Fukurai et al. 45;
Ulsperger and Hodges 21; Wyatt 29-30). The media’s preoccupation with the trial
led to deep feelings of vulnerability after a highly pressured sexually covered
advertising and media publicity, making the trial one of the most hyped child
molestation trials of the 1980s and 1990s. According to Wyatt (29-30), the closure
of the preschool is also considered to have had a significant economic effect
on those who depended on the school for livelihood. Besides Ray Buckey and his
mother Peggy McMartin-Buckey, the pre-school employed five other women. Wyatt
(29-30) provides reliable evidence, as his research is peer-reviewed. He also
relied on primary sources like video recordings with first-hand accounts of
people involved in the trial.

Political
Effects of the Trial

The McMartin
Preschool Trial had significant effects on policymaking in the larger
California, as it led to the passage of new laws. Other states like Illinois,
Idaho, Louisiana, and Texas also considered passing similar legislation.
Ulsperger and Hodges (18) observed that the trial triggered a demand for public
policy and political action. The need to come up with the legislation was
triggered by the social panic brought about by the trial. A study by Ulsperger
and Hodges (20) indicated that before the trial, the notion of ritual abuse had
not been treated as a major policy issue. The research evidence provided by
Ulsperger and Hodges (18) provides a reliable historical, phenomenological
interpretation of the trial, as it is peer-reviewed. In an attempt to recount
the events that led to the passage of California ritual abuse law, Ulsperger
and Hodges (20) observed that it is the McMartin Preschool Trial that led
Senator Newton Russell to lobby for the passage of the law in 1993. Russell
believed that by passing the law, individual participating in child abuse and ritual
abuse would be given harsher punishment. In spite of lack of concrete evidence
related to the McMartin case, Russel received support from other politicians
and the Attorney General’s office, which also developed a report on the
detriments of ritual abuse in California. Russell had also been instrumental in
fuelling the public outrage linked to the McMartin case. He used this
opportunity to gain political mileage, even as many citizens started looking up
to him as a true crime fighter, particularly when he pushed for the passing of
the legislation. Despite these, the ritual abuse law only remained active for
two years, as it was repealed in 1997 after the fever that surrounded the
McMartin trial died down when the jury had ultimately acquitted all those accused
of child abuse and ritual abuse (Ulsperger and Hodges 21).

Conclusion

In conclusion, the McMartin Preschool Trial
created lingering clouds of suspicion over schools and significant social panic,
which influenced public discourses and policymaking regarding the practices of
both the child protection communities and the judicial system. The McMartin Preschool Trial triggered nationwide panic regarding child
safety in schools. The spread of panic led to public distrust, whereby people started
suspecting their neighbors of involvement in satanic rituals. The trial led to
significant expenditures by the media, the prosecution, and the accused. The trial
also had significant effects on policymaking in the larger California, as it
led to the passage of new laws

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