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 and the latest in 2008. 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.
Most of the Kern County child sex abuse cases were multi-defendant group prosecutions. Rick Pitts was one of the “Pitts Seven”, a group of six family members and one family friend who were accused of participating in a “child sex abuse ring” in Kern County in the mid-1980s.
Sexual abuse allegations first arose in January 1984, after Rick Pitts’s six-year-old son, Brian, and other children were caught playing in a sexually-inappropriate manner at school. When questioned by a school counselor, Brian made remarks suggesting that his mother, Marcella Pitts
, had sexually abused him. The counselor filed a report with Child Protective Services (CPS) and officials began interviewing Brian and his older brothers, aged eight and ten.
Over the next several months, the boys were repeatedly questioned by the police. In the interviews, the boys provided increasingly extreme accusations of abuse, eventually alleging that they had been abused by various family members and indicating that their step-sisters and cousins had also been abused. Based on the testimony of the Pitts boys, police also interviewed other children in the family, some of whom at first denied ever being abused and later began to report abuse, and some of whom consistently denied being abused.
Ultimately, the accusations extended to include Marcella Pitts’s siblings Colleen Dill Forsythe
and Wayne Dill, Jr
., their mother, Grace Dill
, and Colleen Forsythe’s husband Wayne Forsythe
. Family members were accused of abusing their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. Gina Miller
, a family friend, was also accused of abuse, though only two of the children were able to identify her in a line-up.
Rick and Marcella Pitts and Colleen Dill Forsythe were arrested on June 4, 1984. On July 25, 1984, all three were charged with conspiracy, forcible lewd and lascivious acts on children under the age of fourteen, use of children for purposes of pornography, child endangerment, and assault. Over the course of the next month, Gina Miller, Grace Dill, Wayne Dill Jr. and Wayne Forsythe were also arrested and charged with similar crimes.
The cases were consolidated in late 1984, and the “Pitts Seven” trial began December 13, 1984. Eight children testified, two of whom denied that any abuse had occurred. The prosecution presented evidence that one of the children tested positive for the bacteria gardnerella vaginalis, and a medical expert falsely claimed that this organism was found only in sexually active individuals. One prosecutor compared the defendants’ alleged acts to atrocities committed during the Holocaust and referred to Christ as a witness to children’s credibility. There was no physical evidence to support the children’s allegations of abuse.
On August 2, 1985, all seven defendants were convicted of a total of 377 counts of child sex abuse and conspiracy. Wayne Forsythe was sentenced to 285 years in prison. Rick and Marcella Pitts and Colleen Dill Forsythe each received 373 years in prison. Grace Dill, Wayne Dill Jr. and Gina Miller each received terms of 405 years in prison.
All seven defendants appealed their convictions, alleging that prosecutorial misconduct had prevented them from receiving a fair trial. In 1989, two of the children recanted their testimony. In 1990, all of the convictions were reversed by the California Court of Appeal, based on findings of egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The judge found that prosecutors had made numerous inappropriate comments which were likely to have prejudiced the jury against the defendants, and during the investigation, had knowingly coerced child witnesses into making false accusations; for example, one child was told that if she testified as instructed, she would be able to go home, but if not, she would never see her mother again.
The misconduct was so egregious that the Court of Appeal directed the trial court to enter an order dismissing specified counts. The remaining counts were dismissed in 1991; by 1994, all the child witnesses had recanted and claimed their testimony was coerced.
- Alexandra Gross