America is the land where we used to put to death witches. I know there are no such things but that didn’t stop the well educated and the less so at that time from being convinced of their existence. The accusers were often children.
The difficulty in shaking a child’s evidence is enormous. We all feel sympathy for children so hard or harsh cross-examination is either out of the question or elicits further sympathy for the child. We saw how in Colonial days a mere accusation and the attendant hysteria caused some women to be burned at the stake.
I remember reading that they had another way to test the guilt or innocence of an accused person in those early days. They would toss the person into a river. If the river accepted her and she drowned then she was innocent of the accusation; if the river tossed her up and she floated or swam ashore she was guilty and then put to death.
Along with that test we had the early form of water boarding. It was called the ducking stool.
That happened long ago but similar hysterias continue to this day. It was back in the 1980s, the local folk will remember the Fells Acre case when children again were at the forefront of accusing others of molesting them. All over the country cases seemed to spring up out of nowhere. It seemed we had become a nation of child molesters.
“Experts” in child abuse used by the prosecution would travel around the country like snake salesmen of old giving testimony supporting the children. They’d tell the jury that whatever the child said had to be believed even though there was a ton of evidence to the contrary.
That hysteria died out slowly. Even though nothing really changed in the nation it seemed that all the molesters had suddenly disappeared. The change happened in part because the prosecutors began to question these so called “experts” and looked with a jaundiced eye at the methods used to determine whether the child was telling the truth. The other part was the defense bar that worked mightily to demonstrate that a fake type system had arisen whereby innocent persons were having cases made up against them.
I prosecuted a murder case that came about during this time. I also oversaw an investigation into accusations by a child of evil and strange happenings at certain day care center. In the murder case where a mother murdered her child it was clear she was abetted by a psychologist who was caught up in the hysteria of the times. In the investigation, despite professionals telling us the child’s wild stories had to be true, I preferred to rely on our state police investigators who did an appropriate investigation and found no grounds for believing anything was amiss at the day care center.
Had we credited the child’s evidence and sent in the “experts” we probably would have brought about a situation where most parents of the children in the school would have been convinced their child had been molested. The “experts” were our modern day witches seeing things no one else could see.
I bring this up because of the “shaking baby” case. The Boston Herald deserves kudos for its coverage. It notes that Dr. Alice Whittier Newton has diagnosed the death of Rehma Sabir as one caused by her being shaken to death despite no outward signs of trauma. Aisling Brady McCarthy has been charged with first degree murder by the Middlesex District Attorney. This is the same district attorney’s office as handled the Fells Acre case.
This doctor lists herself as being the medical director of the child protection program with clinical interests in child abuse and neglect. She’s also the doctor behind the Justina Pelletier matter which I didn’t follow but it seems whatever her input into it it cause untoward misery for the child and her family. She also apparently made a shaken baby finding in another matter that didn’t seem to hold up.
My experience tells me that people in the business of looking for something will often find it even if it isn’t there. That was the case with the witches, the abused children and perhaps it is the case with Aisling Brady McCarthy. My experience also suggests that the defendant has a hard time beating these cases because of the sympathy for the dead child and the probable testimony of the doctor, who even if her evidence is totally conjured up because of a predisposition to make that finding, it will be enough to get the case to the jury.
There are problems with the case. Some injuries to the baby were weeks old and not connected with McCarthy despite prosecution claims otherwise. McCarthy has been held in jail without bail during these proceedings and the prosecution says it is going to present 90 witnesses in the case. The case to me has all the markings of one of those witch trials. At least McCarthy won’t be burned at the stake.