By David Marshall
I remember well my conversation with Mike Frost when I was embarking on the first big child sex abuse defense investigation of my career. Mike had a long and impressive record of defending such cases, so I’d called him as the novice seeking advice from the master.
My client was accused of molesting two sisters. “Your case has two alleged victims?,” Mike said. “Well, a case with two alleged victims is not twice as difficult as a case with one.” Mike paused. “It’s nine times as difficult.”
Indeed. It’s hard for the average person to keep an open mind about any criminal accusation, to wait to see the evidence rather than assuming guilt. And even harder when the accusation is as emotionally-loaded as a child sex abuse accusation. And hardest of all when child sex abuse accusations are coming from more than one person.
Mayor Ed Murray Drops Out of Race
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s decision not to seek re-election illustrates this. Murray faces allegations that about 30 years ago he paid four young teenagers for sex. In the Seattle Times, columnist Danny Westneat opined on what led Murray to reverse his initial vow to fight for re-election despite the allegations: even his supporters believed the allegations were true. Westneat didn’t quote any who said they believed them. Rather, Westneat observed the mood of those who attended the mayor’s announcement that he would not run:
The crowd of die-hard Murray supporters was resigned, but for the most part they did not seem angry. The emotion was that of a passing, of the end of an era. It wasn’t that a terrible injustice had been done.
Even Murray’s strongest supporters have trouble thinking all the men are lying. Had the first accuser not been joined by three others, the mayor might today be campaigning vigorously for re-election.
What is a Multiple-Accuser Case?
By “multiple-accuser case” I mean any case in which one defendant is accused of child sex abuse by more than one child and that each child reports being molested separately. If multiple children allege they were molested in the same event, that case has special challenges, but the challenges are not as great as when the children allege they were molested separately.
Rarely are two or more adults alleged to have jointly molested even one child in one incident. But if two or more are alleged to have jointly molested different children in different incidents, I’d call that a multiple-accuser case, too.
What Makes Multiple-Accuser Cases So Difficult?
“Lighting never strikes twice.” This saying summarizes the problem of the multiple-accuser case. People regard suffering a false accusation of child abuse a rare event. That the same person could suffer such a rare misfortune twice seems extremely unlikely.
Tactics for Defending a Multiple-Accuser Case on the Facts
You know what? Lighting often does strike the same spot twice. Tall buildings and radio towers can be hit several times in the course of a single thunderstorm. Lightning bolts have something in common with each other that incline them to hit the same targets.
To defend a multiple-accuser case, one must find something the accusers have in common that would incline them to falsely accuse the same person.
The notorious day-care sex abuse prosecutions of the 1980’s provide classic examples.
In all those cases, several small children accused day-care staff of sexually abusing them. What did the children have in common? They attended the same day care, but that could only explain why they’d make true allegations. It didn’t explain why they’d make false ones.
In each case, all the children had been interviewed by investigators who used very suggestive, even coercive, interviewing techniques. For example, some were told that their friends had reported the bad things the day care teacher had done. Didn’t the child want to help protect other kids from this bad teacher? If so, the child needed to tell the bad things the teacher had done to him.
Very few child abuse investigators are so heavy-handed these days. But an investigator who is not careful can still contaminate one child’s account by not keeping from that child what another child has said.
Of course, children don’t get interviewed by criminal investigators until some adult has reported they’ve suffered a crime. And that report usually happens because the child tells something to someone who is not a professional investigator. That adult who first hears the allegation has no training in investigative techniques and so may tell the child what another child has said.
At the Marshall Defense Firm we have defended several cases in which the accusing child had a mother or aunt who was exceptionally worried that someone might molest the child—or that a particular man with access to the child seemed like he might molest. That exceptional vigilance can lead to a lot of questions, over many weeks. “Has Uncle Bob ever touched you? Are you sure he hasn’t?” Such a suggestion can, when dropped repeatedly into a young child’s mind, become the child’s memory.
Legal Tactics for Defending Multiple Accuser Cases
Sometimes one can turn a multiple-accuser case into multiple single-accuser cases. In a criminal case, an attorney files a “motion to sever counts” to accomplish this.
In a multiple-accuser criminal case, the defendant is charged with multiple criminal acts, known as “counts.” It’s rare for more than one accuser to be in single count, so there are usually at least as many counts as accusers. A motion to sever counts asks the court to schedule the counts for separate trials.
Courts don’t like to conduct more than one trial when one is possible. It hurts what judges call “the efficient administration of justice.” That is, it makes more work for them, the lawyers, and some of the witnesses.
To overcome this reluctance, a defendant usually must show that he would be prejudiced by trying all the counts in one trial. For the very reason that multiple-accuser cases are so difficult to defend, showing prejudice is often easy.
But there is also a second test for motions to sever: whether the evidence for all the counts would be “cross-admissible.” This means whether, under the rules of evidence, the evidence of all counts would be admitted even in separate trials. (Why the rules of evidence would allow that varies from case to case and is beyond the scope of this article. I’ll save that subject for another day.) If the judge deciding the motion to sever concludes the evidence would be cross-admissible, she will deny the motion because granting it would give the defendant no benefit; he’d still have every count decided by a jury that had received evidence about all of the accusations.
Legal How a Law Firm Experienced in Defending Multiple-Accuser Cases Can Help You Win
Someone facing multiple sex abuse accusers needs a legal team that will explore every avenue of defense—both legal tactics, like motions to sever, and defenses on the facts.
Relentless investigation is essential, especially if the motion to sever is denied. One must keep searching for the link among the accusers that can explain why they would make false accusations. Ideally, one will find several links.
There is no one form of investigation that is likely to find the link. The defense team must use whatever investigative methods are available—interviews, depositions, school records, counseling and therapy records, medical records, etc. And the defense team should constantly re-evaluate its ideas about the link as its investigation provides new information, new clues.
Multiple-Accuser Cases Can be Won
I won that first trial with multiple accusers. My client was acquitted of all charges. It can be done.
Alexei Garick and I are now investigating another case with two accusers. We have our work cut out for us.
If you or someone you love is facing multiple accusers, please give us a call today. At the Marshall Defense Firm, defense of those accused of sex offenses is at the heart of our work. We provide strong defense for these high-stakes cases. To learn more about what we do and the clients we’ve helped, click here.
You are not alone. Call the Marshall Defense Firm today at 206.826.1400 or contact us online.