From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005. In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.
The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.
In 1984, Kern County officials began to investigate one of Donna Sue Hubbard’s neighbors, David Kelly, after a six-year-old boy named James accused Kelly of molesting him. James also said another man, David Duncan, was there while he was being molested. In the course of their investigation, police heard from a neighbor that Hubbard’s son Richie had been seen at David Kelly’s home. Deputy Jack Rutledge asked Hubbard for permission to interview Richie, and she agreed. During questioning, Richie accused Kelly of rubbing and fondling him.
Hubbard fell under suspicion when a paid informant at the Kern County jail, who had been in jail with David Duncan, said he had heard from Duncan that Hubbard was paid to allow others to molest her son. Rutledge re-interviewed James and Richie, and both eventually accused Hubbard of molesting them along with Duncan and Kelly.
Over the course of the investigation, Rutledge aggressively questioned numerous children about possible sex abuse, and tried to convince them to admit they had been molested if they denied it. Rutledge’s coercive questioning tactics did not emerge until after Hubbard’s trial. Three siblings later testified that Rutledge and social worker Colleen Ryan had tried to convince them to say they had been molested when they hadn’t been. Their mother testified that Rutledge was physically and verbally abusive to her three children when they insisted they had not been molested.
On June 20, 1984, Rutledge brought Hubbard in for questioning and interrogated her for hours, demanding that she admit her involvement in the “child sex abuse ring.” He told her he would release her if she confessed that she was involved. Hubbard finally stated that she was present when Kelly molested her son, but that Kelly had held a gun to her head and threatened her in order to make her cooperate. Despite his promises to release her, Rutledge immediately arrested Hubbard. She immediately repudiated her statement.
At Hubbard’s trial in 1985, Richie testified that his mother helped Duncan and Kelly tie him up, hang him from a hook, and sodomize and molest him. Another supposed victim – a friend of Richie’s named Billie – testified that he was molested by Hubbard, Kelly, Duncan, and Duncan’s girlfriend. The third supposed victim – 6-year-old James – was not even able to identify Hubbard. Hubbard’s pre-trial “confession” was never introduced at trial because the judge found that it was involuntary and coerced.
In addition to the children’s testimonies, medical evidence was presented. James had been examined by his physician, who found physical manifestations that were the result either of being sodomized or from his long-term, pre-existing hemorrhoid problem. Richie had been examined by Kern County’s child abuse expert, who found no signs that he had been molested. The prosecution also introduced a battered syringe found in Duncan’s home, which was found to contain residue of a morphine-derivative and PCP.
In March 1985, a jury convicted Hubbard of 20 felony counts of child molestation, and she was sentenced to 100 years in prison. She appealed to the State Court of Appeal, but her conviction was affirmed in 1987. In 1992, Hubbard filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the investigators used coercive and suggestive interview techniques in obtaining the children’s accusations. The judge denied her petition, finding that Richie’s recantation was not credible, and referring to Hubbard’s involuntary and coerced pretrial “confession” to resolve any conflicts in the evidence -- even though the same judge had excluded it at trial.
On August 7, 1995, Hubbard’s second habeas petition was granted by the Judge Clarence Westra, Jr., of the California Court of Appeal. The Court concluded that repeated interrogation of the alleged victims by investigators made the children’s statements unreliable and most likely false. Hubbard remained in prison while the case was reviewed by the California Supreme Court, but was released within a few months and prosecutors dismissed the charges.
- Alexandra Gross