Lessons of the McMartin Case

In the mid-1980s, the McMartin Preschool child sex abuse trial shocked the nation with its accusations of rampant abuse at a California preschool. In a New York Times retro report, Clyde Haberman examines the media frenzy that surrounded this and other similar cases. Haberman observes the media’s “pack mentality” and their lack of “fairness and reasoned skepticism” when child abuse accusations are reported.

Haberman argues that media speculation alone can destroy the accused’s life, even if he or she is exonerated at trial.

Among the similar cases that followed the McMartin case were the “child sex abuse ring” prosecutions in Wenatchee, Washington. Wrongful convictions in those cases were eventually reversed through the work of Innocence Project Northwest law students and lawyers, including David Marshall—work for which they received the National Law Journal’s Pro Bono Award for 2000.

The New York Times report concludes by examining the lasting effects of the McMartin, including its effect on how child abuse accusations are handled today.