Costs and Benefits of Modern “Sex Crime” Witch Hunts

Friday, August 17th, 2012

People of our present era like to believe that they are sophisticated, intelligent, and incapable of engaging in the kind of witch hunts that made Salem, Massachusetts, famous, yet in the past 30 years American law enforcement and prosecutors have pursued what only could be described as witch hunts, as they have railroaded innocent people into prison for crimes that clearly have not occurred. There are the more famous witch hunts, such as the McMartin and Kern County cases in California, the Little Rascals Case in North Carolina, the Grant Snowden case in Florida, the witch hunt of Wenatchee, Washington, and many more.

In each of these cases, people have been accused of the most sordid and horrible kinds of child molestation, from outright rape to shoving swords into the rectums of children (and, amazingly, leaving absolutely no trace of injury), cooking babies in microwave ovens, engaging in Satanic rituals in the middle of the day at day care centers, throwing children into shark-infested waters, and more. We would like to think that there at least would be some physical or corroborating evidence for such actions, but these “crimes” were pursued even though nothing seemed changed about the children.

Often, the charges seem to be absolutely contrived. In Dade County, Georgia, for example, Brad Wade was accused of sexually molesting a minor on a very short stretch of I-59 while simultaneously driving more than 60 mph. (While he had been driving in from Alabama, the alleged molestation took place only in Georgia.) That might seem a bit strange, but when one realizes that Alabama authorities had recognized that the accusations and their backgrounds (yet another child custody fight) simply did not make sense, so Northwest Georgia authorities, which push nearly every sexual abuse accusation (as long as the accused is not politically-connected), eagerly jumped on the charges and Wade is serving a lengthy sentence in a Georgia prison.

When one steps back and takes a hard look at these cases, it is apparent that the authorities have depended upon mass hysteria and a news media that soaks up every story, no matter how contrived it might be. Because I have no expertise in psychology (except in dealing with four internationally-adopted teenagers in my home), I am reluctant to deal with psychological aspects of witch hunts except to say that people really do come to believe things that physically seem to violate laws of time and space.

I turn, instead, t0 those things where I do have more formal experience, the cost and benefit patterns that accompany these witch hunts, patterns that would interest an economist like me. Accompanying that curiosity are some questions that never seem to be asked when the hysteria breaks out:

  • Why is corroborating evidence ignored, even when it absolutely points to the falsity of the charges?
  • Are there any overt patterns that are seen time and again when authorities go after people accused of these horrific things?
  • Does anyone benefit, financially, professionally, or otherwise, from the pursuing of these charges?

If we can answer these questions, then we also are able to get a clearer picture of why these charges are levied and why the authorities are hellbent on bird-dogging them, even in the face of corroborating evidence that absolutely debunks the accusations. Furthermore, we might get a better sense of why jurors in such cases are likely to convict innocent people.

In the situation of bogus child molestation charges, there really is a Ground Zero: the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act of 1974, commonly known as the Mondale Act. If ever there were an outright federal assault on the Rights of the Accused which came out of Anglo-American Law, it was this law. Congress passed it, of course, because Sen. Walter Mondale (who was up for re-election) claimed that child abuse was epidemic and the federal government had to step in to put an end to this horror.

Now, Mondale was right in saying that there always are horrific cases of child abuse and molestation, and I can say, as one who has been involved in four international adoptions, that such outrages occur inside and outside the USA. No one will dispute that fact. However, the federal “solution” to this problem has been to create huge incentives and moral hazards for false accusations. This is a law that not only eviscerated the Rights of the Accused, but also created incentives for local and state governments to make money and for individuals employed in that system to enhance their own personal prospects.

Economists are fond of saying that incentives matter, and CAPTA and similar laws passed in its wake (including the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and beyond) created numerous financial and personal incentives for police and prosecutors to emphasize these kinds of cases. At the same time, CAPTA lowered the legal threshold for prosecution and denied defendants the right to bring corroborating evidence that might prove exculpatory.

For example, authorities claimed that molested and abused children would be traumatized by having to be in the same courtroom with their alleged abuser, so children often would testify from the judge’s chamber via a closed-circuit television. Such an arrangement only served to make the defendant look to be such a monster that he or she had to be guilty. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this practice, saying that it deprived the defendants of the Sixth Amendment right to face one’s accuser.)

The Mondale Act also told states receiving federal money to eliminate the requirement for corroborating evidence, which mean that the accusation itself would constitute all of the proof needed for a conviction, which lowered the legal standard in criminal cases to something akin to preponderance of the evidence, the civil standard, instead of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The Rape Shield laws, which also have applied to sexual abuse cases, encouraged judges to disallow evidence such as the accuser having a history of making false charges, and the courts also permitted the admission of hearsay evidence, especially when it would benefit the prosecution’s case.

We should not be surprised at the results, as numerous people have been wrongfully convicted for something that never happened. Because American courts tend to overturn convictions on issues of procedure and not guilt or innocence, one can say with certainty that in the United States of America today, actual innocence no longer is a legitimate defense, at least in some kinds of cases. Furthermore, the appeals courts constantly are looking for reasons to impose “finality,” which means that they wash their hands of the evidence and the hard fact that those appealing their convictions might well be innocent.

While it almost is impossible statistically to trace the patterns of accusations and convictions, nonetheless we have seen the development of cost and benefit patterns that have followed in the wake of the changes in how such cases proceed. We should remember that witch hunts don’t occur because people mysteriously become hysterical en mass. They happen, instead, because individuals benefit from making and pursuing these charges, and in the case of so-called sex crimes, the benefits can be huge.

Before looking at the benefits, however, let us examine who bears the costs. People who are accused either must depend upon a public defender or must pay for legal representation from their own resources, and it does not take long for the money spigot to run dry. Tonya Craft literally had close to a million dollars to spend on her defense, and she still ran out of funds before the case even came to trial. In the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case, each of the three defendants had to spend more than $1 million apiece just to try to debunk what were transparently-false charges.

In cases involving child molestation or rape, an ordinary criminal defense attorney usually is not enough, as these are very difficult cases to defend because the accused already has been demonized in the media and by prosecutors, and the laws governing such cases are different than most laws regarding alleged criminal conduct. For example, if one is charged with robbery or murder, an actual robbery or murder must take place, and then the question for the jury is whether or not the defendant is the guilty party.

The sex crime cases, however, have such a low threshold of proof that real-live evidence of such an assault actually having occurred is not needed; all that is necessary is an accusation, and the law provides plenty of incentives for people to make false accusations for purposes of revenge or, in child custody cases, to get the other person out of the way.

The costs can be substantial. I know one attorney who specializes in such cases who requires a down payment up front of $100,000. Since few people keep $100K in spare change, getting the funds is very, very difficult. Then there a experts in forensics, interviewing, and the like who also do not testify for free. One of the reasons that so many people plead to something in such cases is that they do not have the personal resources to fight the charges.

On the benefit side, one only has to think of Janet Reno, Ed Jaegels, Scott Harshbarger (who prosecuted the notorious Fells Acres Case in Massachusetts), and Gary A. Riesen, the Chelan County, Washington, district attorney who was re-elected until his retirement last year by voters despite his “witch hunt” prosecutions. Reno rode her wrongful convictions to the position of U.S. Attorney General, Jaegels has been a conservative icon in California, and Harshbarger rose to prominence in national Democratic Party circles.

Nancy Lamb, who pursued the Little Rascals Case — the most expensive criminal case in the history of North Carolina — was lionized in the media and even now, according to North Carolina’s Judicial District 1 website, remains as a prosecutor who “specializes in child abuse.” In all of these cases, the individual prosecutors benefited from prosecuting innocent people. None had to face lawsuits, and none were brought up before their various state bars for discipline.

Their actions wasted millions of dollars, destroyed individual lives and families, and unnecessarily created real victims. None paid anything resembling a personal price. Likewise, those employed by the various Child Protective Services agencies and the Children’s Advocacy Centers — all of which were created by federal legislation — are immune from lawsuits and face almost no legal scrutiny for their aggressive questioning that literally demands that children “disclose” abuse, even when the children being questioned vociferously deny that any abuse even happened.

When patterns of costs and benefits are so skewed, and when taxpayers are forced to fund witch hunts while individuals are forced to pay for their own defense, we should not be surprised that witch hunts continue to occur on a regular basis. Witch hunts are just one more example of how the political classes of Washington, D.C., in the name of “doing something” actually create situations in which the so-called cure is worse than the disease.

William Anderson


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73 Responses to “Costs and Benefits of Modern “Sex Crime” Witch Hunts”

  1. #1 |  Weird Willy | 

    #43, Bill Wells

    “About half the time I submit a comment, it just disappears into a black hole. It’s not content, since I can submit the same comment later and it gets posted. Is this just me?”

    Bill, I have a tenant who sometimes asks to use my household computer to visit this site. She has complained that she has attempted to post on a number of occasions, but that the system gives absolutely no recognition to her contributions, displaying neither hide nor hair of them. This brings her to suspect that there is a problem with our computer. I, on the other hand, have never had any problem with my posts being accepted. So it appears that while it is not just yours or hers, it is a rather selective problem.

  2. #2 |  Mairead | 

    44 Other Sean: You know who wants to stop kids from learning logic and critical thinking? Politicians, entertainers, cops, doctors, lawyers, fund managers, advertisers, salesman, bureaucrats, scientists, teachers, preachers, janitors, retail workers, non-workers, criminals, enemies

    Very true.

    parents, siblings, neighbors, friends, and most of all, the kids themselves.

    Not so.

    Don’t believe me? Try an experiment.

    Sure, in adulthood and couched in those terms. Hell, even I wouldn’t go.

    In my third year of secondary school, our English teacher told us that we already knew all the English we’d ever need unless we wanted to teach the subject ourselves, and so there was no point in boring us rigid with crap (his term) like deconstructing syntax or “Litrachoor”. So he would teach us logic and critical thinking instead. And he did.

    This was an inner-city school, with lots of poverty and more than a few displaced-person (“D.P.s” we called them) incomers from Europe. I think the “wealthiest” family was a friend’s — her Dad was a postie and her Mum a nurse, and they lived in what looked to me to be a very lovely house in a posh neighborhood on the edge of town. (Later I realised it was a tract house in a working-class neighborhood, but it impressed hell out of me at the time).

    Everyone learned how to do syllogisms, spot propaganda and broken logic (undistributed middle arguments soon got hooted at), decode motives, etc. I thought it was wonderful and still do, 56 years on. I don’t believe a day has gone by since that I haven’t used what he taught us.

    The trick is to get them young, and package it right. Don’t try to teach them “necessary and sufficient conditions”, teach them “how to spot other people’s lies”.

  3. #3 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @47 – That’s exactly the kind of thing which gets taught in evidence-based systems, yes, rather than memorization for tests…but politicians want TESTS, dammit. (Both the left and right).

    If they can’t find the “failures”, how can them have people to demonize, after all.

  4. #4 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Oops hit submit too early… the far right of course blame teachers, who have fought for this for years, because you’re ignoring what’s actually said in favor of demonizing people who DARE try and help others.

    I agree with you – this is a top-down problem, which only a few countries like Finland have overcome.

  5. #5 |  Mairead | 

    42 CSPS: I think the most important political fight taking place in America is the fight for School Vouchers. If the parents of school children can get out from under the public school system, a lot of the more transparent political ploys will cease to bring in the rubes.

    I agree in part and disagree in part. Vouchers are inherently elitist, and violate Rawls’s conditions for a fair, libertarian society.

    But we for sure need to reform public schools in a number of ways! They need to be re-directed toward teaching kids cooperation and responsibility, resistance to the illegitimate demands of Authority, and preparation for autonomous, authentic life as multi-skilled adults living in peer communities in a single-system (Lovelock & Margulis) world.

  6. #6 |  Mairead | 

    43 Bill Wells: Human beings are inherently unequal. If equality is a necessity for justice, justice is an unattainable fantasy.

    Or did you have some other notion of equality in mind?

    I’m thinking of the late John Rawls’s notion of equality and justice. He was of course aware that people differ in their abilities. But there’s no reason to posterise those differences by “making the rich richer and the poor poorer”.

    Rawls proposed a wonderful little thought experiement, namely that we imagine there is a magical lottery by means of which those who choose to participate can irrevocably change their personal and socioeconomic situation.

    So if you decide to enter, you have (let’s say) a 1-in-100 chance of becoming a member of the world’s wealthy elite, and a 1-in-7 chance of becoming a Chinese peasant, a 1-in-50 chance of being disabled in some way, etc.

    Most people wouldn’t enter. No matter what their situation, they’re more likely to be worse off after than better off.

    We’re where we are because of where we started, and where we started was the effect of randomness, not anything we deserved (as Buffett has noted, had his parents been farmers in Afghanistan, he’d be a farmer in Afghanistan – or dead)

    So Rawls’s idea of justice is that changes should benefit those who got stuck with the dirty end of the stick, with a goal of bringing everyone’s situation up to equality insofar as that’s possible by human choice. That’s a truly libertarian goal: it liberates everyone.

    I mean by “equality” and “justice” the same things Rawls meant.

  7. #7 |  Bill Wells | 

    #50: “But we for sure need to reform public schools in a number of ways! They need to be re-directed toward teaching kids cooperation and responsibility, resistance to the illegitimate demands of Authority, and preparation for autonomous, authentic life as multi-skilled adults living in peer communities in a single-system (Lovelock & Margulis) world.”

    Well, I won’t agree with that 100% but, no matter, it will never happen. You cannot teach independence in a system that coerces children into attendance.

    Leave a Reply

  8. #8 |  Luke | 

    The argument here with Fred raises an issue. I have followed this blog for many years and am concerned that the information here has not gone beyond a small number of dedicated followers. When one wants information to become generally known, saying “Google it” doesn’t cut it.

    Perhaps a comprehensive resource center? If I want details of all known prosecutorial abuses in my state, it must take me 5 minutes to be provided with the information in a convenient manner. Not because I am lazy, but because it needs to be easy to make a convincing case to people who do not believe such a problem exists.

  9. #9 |  miker | 

    Mailread is right – timing and presentation have everything to do with successfully teaching logic. There’s no doubt that ours would be a more just and more prosperous society if we taught logic to kids from a young age.

    The problem is even though our overall economy would be richer, all the folks who currently benefit from an uneducated populace would have to work harder to earn their living. Trying to force those in power to give up the opportunity to shoot fish in a barrel is a daunting task, but it’s absolutely a battle worth having.

  10. #10 |  Bill Wells | 

    #51:

    So, how does Rawls propose to actualize his concepts of equality and justice? By private action or by government action or by some other means?

  11. #11 |  Mairead | 

    52 Bill Wells: no matter, it will never happen. You cannot teach independence in a system that coerces children into attendance.

    I agree in part. Adults are goal-oriented and want a payoff for the time they spend. Kids aren’t. As long as it’s interesting, kids will go for it, and the younger the more readily.

    Obviously this gradually changes as they grow toward adulthood, and by the time they reach adolescence they too want a payoff. But early on, all teachers have to do is make it interesting.

    And that’s the trick: make gaining the basics interesting enough so that they’re eager each morning.

    But as Leon (48) suggests, many -even most- teachers want nothing more than the freedom to do exactly that: make school interesting and meaningful for the kids under their tutelage.

    What we’ve to do is free the good ones and sack the duds, and where I disagree with you is in your belief that it will never happen. It must happen, and PDQ, or there’ll be nothing more to worry about, nor anyone to do the worrying.

  12. #12 |  William Anderson | 

    Willy, tell you friend that I don’t know much about how this website goes. I have temporary privileges to post, but that is all. It is a WordPress platform, but I don’t know how it works.

    Heck, I have had two blogs on Blogspot for some years and still don’t know how that operates. I’m serious. So, I am not the right person to ask as to why your friend has not had her posts uploaded here. I wish I could help, but I am clueless.

  13. #13 |  Bill Wells | 

    #52: “I agree in part. Adults are goal-oriented and want a payoff for the time they spend. Kids aren’t. As long as it’s interesting, kids will go for it, and the younger the more readily.”

    This simply misses the point. Compulsory education is, at root, by nature, and in implementation, coercive. “I order you to be independent” does not work and, once one digs past all the nonsense, that is what teaching independence in (compulsory) schools amounts to.

    “What we’ve to do is free the good ones and sack the duds, and where I disagree with you is in your belief that it will never happen. It must happen, and PDQ, or there’ll be nothing more to worry about, nor anyone to do the worrying.”

    The fact that something must happen or disaster will strike does not imply that it will happen or even that it can happen. So, why do you think this will happen, given the overwhelming evidence that almost none of the people who are in position to make a change want it to happen?

  14. #14 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Mairead,

    I may be totally off base, but I think the root of what’s wrong with the public schools is that the old unspoken contract between teachers and parents has been not simply broken but shattered.

    Mass education has always been at least somewhat about indoctrination, and any half-smart parents have known this. The unspoken contract was “You get to try to teach our kids to be ‘better citizens’ (whatever that means to you) and in exchange you will teach them to read, write, and do basic math. That will make them able to self-educate if they need to. It will make them independent of the smart asses who patronize the illiterate. It’s worth a little brainwashing.”

    For whatever reason, the public school teachers stopped managing to teach the basics. I have my opinions about why, but they don’t matter here. The contract is broken, and this matters because unless the parents are willing to back the schools, education will only happen for the self-motivated kids.

    Reinstating the contract with the present public school structure might not be impossible, but it won’t be easy. So long as the public schools are the only place that the money earmarked for public education can go, they schools have scant motive for reform. The Teachers’ Unions like the schools being all about full employment for their membership, and have successfully resisted reform of all kinds for decades.

    Vouchers break that deadlock. I think that they will be a short term solution, and that within a generation the voucher system will have become so spectacularly corrupt that a return to public schools will be necessary. But the blob, the education establishment, needs to be reminded that its members are hirelings, not the natural masters of all creation.

  15. #15 |  Bill Wells | 

    #57: “Vouchers break that deadlock. I think that they will be a short term solution, and that within a generation the voucher system will have become so spectacularly corrupt that a return to public schools will be necessary.”

    Actually, there is a far more likely, and far worse, possible outcome. Once vouchers become so common as to make up a significant fraction of private school income, the government will start imposing conditions on who may accept vouchers. These conditions might be “must hire union teachers” or “must teach X”…. and most schools will have little choice but to comply. For precedent, see the declining health care “system”.

  16. #16 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Bill Wells,

    I agree that that is a strong possibility, although some of that has been fought out over College scholarships, and it hasn’t gone all the government’s way.

    This is one reason why I would love to see widespread private charities dedicated to providing a way out for poor children. As the descendent of three men who dies wearing Union Blue during the Civil War, I despise the “Reparations for Slavery” movement, but we do owe the African Americans something for allowing the Progressives, the Social Engineers, and the Bureau-rats turn their public schools into a disaster area.

    Anybody know of any good charities of this sort?

  17. #17 |  Other Sean | 

    Mairead,

    I think you may have skipped a day at that critical thinking school, the one where they teach you that personal experience makes for strong feelings and weak evidence.

    Your highly unusual and not in the least bit repeatable case aside, almost no one has any incentive to teach kids critical thinking, and few kids have any incentive to learn.

    Want to be popular in high school? Logic won’t help you. Want to have sex before you’re 25? Rationality is a nothing but a hindrance. Want to excel in college and grad school? Better learn the art of doublethink, because you’ll need to agree with whichever professor is standing in front of you at the moment. Want to get a job? Better pretend not to notice that phrases like “leveraging vertical synergies moving forward” are empty-headed bullshit. Wanna get promoted? Better learn to pretend that correlation is causation, whenever it suits you.

    Be honest: If Radley installed a logic-bot on this site, such that any fallacy in the comments was immediately answered with a corrective reply, how many people would still post here after a week?

    People hate logic, they hate critical thinking, and in fact they hate anything that gets in the way of the complex mental cheating which defines so much of their lives. The last thing they’re going to do is start arming small children with the tools to expose them as a bunch of lying fools and hypocrites.

  18. #18 |  johnl | 

    It’s not often you see someone complain a William Anderson column isn’t long enough.

  19. #19 |  Deoxy | 

    That’s exactly the kind of thing which gets taught in evidence-based systems, yes, rather than memorization for tests…but politicians want TESTS, dammit. (Both the left and right).

    the far right of course blame teachers, who have fought for this for years, because you’re ignoring what’s actually said in favor of demonizing people who DARE try and help others.

    We tried doing without tests for a long time, and what we got was a system where people could literally graduate from high school unable to read.

    Tests are an attempt at accountability – they get in the way of a good teacher, yes, but they are at least some kind of mechanism for getting rid of the bad ones.

    And bad ones there are. “the right” blames teachers because a significant chunk of the people holding teaching positions are bad teachers – some of them really aren’t even teachers at all, but that’s the title and job that they hold. If every single person who held a teaching position was a self-motivated good teacher, our public education system would immediately lose over 75% of the serious problems it currently has.

    And while we’re casting blame, most of the blame for our current system falls on “the left” – that is the system that enables the unions and the other such bureaucratic institutions that strange the good teachers and enable the clock-punching, useless, space-filling types.

    #57: “Vouchers break that deadlock. I think that they will be a short term solution, and that within a generation the voucher system will have become so spectacularly corrupt that a return to public schools will be necessary.”

    Actually, there is a far more likely, and far worse, possible outcome. Once vouchers become so common as to make up a significant fraction of private school income, the government will start imposing conditions on who may accept vouchers.

    Actually, that’s pretty much the same outcome – the voucher system then exists in name only, as opposed to being abolished, but the practical result is the same.

    And wow, Other Sean, I’m generally more jaded and cynical than the people I interact with, but you’ve got me beat hands down.

    Seriously, I can see your points about getting a job, etc, but a lot of that goes back to “pick your battles” – I see that a lot of that stuff is “empty-headed bullshit”, and indeed, I usually pretend not to notice, because that’s a battle not worth fighting.

    But I’m still really glad I can SEE that it’s BS, even if I don’t fight it.

  20. #20 |  Peth | 

    There seems to be no answer for this type of thing. Innocent or guilty a ‘until proven guilty’ ‘criminal’ is guilty no matter what. Years ago a kid would never accuse someone of such an awful crime just because that person say, the kid a failing grade or looked at them sideways. Today kids sue their parents and get revenge for all real or imagined slight(s) by crying ‘rape’. How sad!

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