Words Are Weapons -- Salem Revisited

Those of you representing folks accused of sex offenses know the power of mere words. An accusation standing alone, without corroboration, can condemn a person whether they have committed a crime or not. Often these words come from children. And once a child makes a claim, the state abandons its critical apparatus and works to foster an environment in which accusations are treated as "disclosures." We give tremdndous power to children by treating them as oracles of shameful truths.

There will come a time in which our incredulity about the words of children looks as troubling as the manner in which we treated accused witches in Salem, Massachussetts. In 1692, 19 men and women and two dogs were convicted and executed for consorting with the devil. These deaths were the product of the words of children who claimed to have been seduced by a Satan-worshipping household servant named Tituba.

Arthur Miller wrote a play about the trials in 1953, The Crucible. He viewed the Salem trials as a parable through which the activities of the House Un-American Committee's prosecution of Americans for disloyalty could be viewed. What gives so much power to mere accusation?, he wondered. Why are some times ripe for an hysteria that is so easily seen to be false in a calmer time?

I wish Miller were writing now. I'd like to see what he would make of the moral panic present in our courts whenever the state chooses to adopt the words of a child as a truth worth fighting for. We do not permit children to make contracts and regard them as incapable in most of life's serious affairs. But yet, if the state chooses to take the uncorroborated claim of a child as truth, to treat it as a disclosure based upon which it can and should deprive a man or woman of liberty, then a defendant is left often as helpless to combat the claims as were the true victims at Salem.

I re-read The Crucible a few weeks ago to prepare for a civil trial in which a client sued the mother of a child who made extravagant claims. The mother defended by saying that it was her job to believe and support her child. I asked the jury to conclude that it was also the mother's job to behave responsbily, and to provide guidance to her child. Treating children as oracles is always dangerous. We won, proving defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, known in some states as outrage. It was an encouraging verdict.

I read the following words from The Crucible to the jury during my opening statement and closing argument. "Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem -- vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law."

Children do not deserve privileged status in our courts. Perhaps it is time to reinvigorate the Mosaic "two witness" rule, once required in homicide cases, and apply it to child sex cases. In those cases in which liberty hangs solely on the word of a child, and in which there is no other witness or any physical proof of harm, it should simply be too risky to prosecute merely on the word of a child. Massachussetts learned that the hard way in Salem; why do we need to learn the lesson all over again? 

Also listed under: Sex Offenders and Justice

Comments: (7)

  • Child Witnessing
    The State suborned the perjured testimony of a six year-old boy in State v. Doriss, 2002. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. His father, who was also called to testify, told a completely different story in contradiction to the son's. The State's prosecutor tried five time to get the father to change his story on the witness stand. He refused. Instead, he told a story which essentially agreed with my own testimony, and corroborated my sole witness. The father told the truth. The child--and the State--lied. It's worse: These two witnesses against me spoke Spanish and no English. Their testimonies had to be translated for the Court. How do I know these Spanish-speaking individuals were in the U.S.A. legally? This question never came up. The Court was unconcerned, assuming that I was guilty-as-charged. The State gets to subpoena a foreign national to testify against a native-born, English-speaking citizen and veteran of the armed services during wartime? I don't get it!
    Fortunately for me, the jury believed the father and exonerated me of eleven out of thirteen bogus criminal charges at GA 23, New Haven.
    Finally, although I 'really' won, I 'actually' lost thru tricks of jurisprudence which favors the State, including improper instructions to the jury by the judge who co-conspired with the State to insure that I not get off 'Scott-free', thus denying me the option of filing a false arrest and malicious prosecution lawsuit against City and State. Thanks for nothin City of New Haven and State of Corrupticut. You're a farce. Recommended reading: No Crueler Tyrannies by Dorothy Rabinowitz.
    Posted on December 5, 2010 at 11:23 am by william doriss
  • a reply
    Perhaps if this were a an out of control trend within our court-children falsely accusing others of assaults, but it isn't. Not everyone is innocent, not all children lie. MOST do not. With that being said, 2 percent of all molestation
    charges are false, the same percentage of false reports of robbery, arson, domestic assault......I could go on , but I have to ask, where is your outrage about those cases? In my opinion, your taking the easy way out by focusing on children and the crimes of sex abuse. Using the Salem Witch Trials as an analogy is meant to only cause more hysteria-which was what the Witch trials were based on; hysteria.
    Your just as bad as the accusers in Salem, creating hysteria over a subject that doesn't need it.
    Posted on December 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm by EfM
  • salem revisited
    Efm, nobody is taking this subject light. visit reformsexoffenderlaws.org and visit the other web sites listed there. then you can find out what Mr Pattis is talking about along with many other Americans. find out why we all are talking about the "witch hunt" (by the way the title of Sean Penn's movie) educate yourself, before you are saying "you are just as bad as the accusers"
    Posted on December 6, 2010 at 2:16 am by renate
  • Prosecutor leading child
    My son is a good example of what lengths the prosecution will go to get a conviction and what hapeens when the defense attorney does not investigate the prosecutors claims. This was a total family issues where my intoxicated son climbed into bed with his half sister. He came out of a bathroom and went into the wrong room, a room he had shared with his wife for 3 years. My daughter told her friend across the street what had happened and she told her mother who told the principal at their school. The prosecutor said they had DNA and had none and my daughter told me that the prosecutor was trying to get her to tell the judge things that did not happen. The defense attorney said with the DNA evidence he could be looking at 30 years in prison. My son was so intoxicated he did not know what happened. Nothing did and my daughter attest to that but my son was so scared he took a deal for five years in prison. Near the end of my sons sentence our attorney finally questioned my daughter and checked what the District Attorney's office said they had and said my son had grounds for filing a writ of Habeas Corpus and I was right to have questioned the things I did. My son has not proceeded with anything and has registered as a sex offender. He is more fortunate with most with the family support and just wants to move on with his life. It is still a horror story.
    Posted on December 6, 2010 at 7:59 am by Bob
  • Jones
    As a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of my father AND as the wife of a wrongly accused and registered sex offender, I think I've earned my right and lived my convictions on this topic.
    Children don't necessarily lie, but, especially in stressed family situations, they want to please. So, an adult asks a child, "Did Joe ever touch you here? or What did Joe put here?" Trying to please, children will respond positively in an effort to please an adult. That's the way my husband was accused. When the so-called therapist was questioning her, the child denied and denied and denied. So, after 11 months with NO counseling, she tells a story that is very much like one her mother told at age 16.
    The other side is that you have a man in jail who has NEVER been in trouble before being threatened almost daily by the DA promising to get the a life sentence being told GRAPHIC stories about what happens to sex offenders in prisons. And, not being wealthy, we had to choose between a bond and paying an attorney. That's another story!
    Eleven months after he's been kept in the jail, he finally agrees to a plea bargain to make the nightmare stop and to avoid a life sentence. Then, eight years into his ten year deferred adjudication probation, the same DA revokes that probation on a technicality and the judges says "15 years". In his closing argument, the DA said, "I knew I didn't have enough to convict you eight years ago, but I knew I'd get a chance to revoke this probation." If he didn't have enough to convict, couldn't that be considered a sign of innocence?
    Soon we will have a significant number of our population on THE registry. Remember, folks their families vote and WE ARE ANGRY!
    Posted on December 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm by Claudia
  • for bob and claudia
    get in touch with us, visit reformsexoffenderlaws.org. find a chapter in your state and get active! we need to educate of what i going in, to many lifes and to many families are destroyed by these laws!
    Posted on December 6, 2010 at 2:13 pm by renate
  • educate myself
    I always have to laugh at those who state such assinine montra's such as 'educate yourself'....especially as when the one spewing the mantra is citing opinion rather than fact.
    Sorry sweatheart-your innability to address what I wrote indicates your ignornance rather than mine.
    Sorry, but a bunch of. Convicted felons crying because they got caught is hardly proof of anything but the guilty not getting it. Don't like the punishment, don't do the crime. Very simple.
    Posted on December 16, 2010 at 2:28 am by efm

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