On October 8, 1984, 22-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels, an aspiring actress, started work as a teacher’s aide at the Wee Care Day Nursery, a facility that occupied several rooms in a church in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Less than a year later, on June 6, 1985, she was indicted on charges of performing sex acts on and with children, as well as inserting knives and forks into their bodies and forcing them to eat human feces and to defecate on her.
The prosecution was one of several cases of child sexual abuse hysteria that swept the nation in the 1980s and 1990s in which coercive and suggestive interviewing techniques by social workers, therapists and law enforcement induced children by the score to say they were sexually abused in fantastical circumstances and to testify to bizarre and impossible behavior.
Michaels went on trial in 1987. Over a 10-month period, a jury heard children testify that she engaged in oral sex with them and forced nude children to pile on top of her while she was naked, or pile on top of each other while she played the piano. Some children testified that Michaels urinated in a bucket in front of them and then drank it.
Defense attorneys contended that Michael was the victim of a witch hunt and that the children’s account of being abused, including being probed with a rectal thermometer, kitchen utensils and plastic blocks were fantasies generated by improper questioning.
On April 15, 1988, after 13 days of deliberation by the jury, Michaels was convicted of 115 of 163 counts of sexual abuse of 19 children between the ages of three and five.
On August 2, 1988, Michaels was sentenced to 40 years in prison and fined $2,875.
The New Jersey Superior Appellate Court overturned the conviction on March 26, 1993, ruling that it was tainted by unreliable and inadmissible expert testimony. The court said that the prosecution expert “was permitted to lead the jury to believe that the (interviewing) process was rooted in science and thus was a reliable means of determining sex abuse.”
As the court pointed out, the prosecution relied upon the expert’s theory, called the “child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome,” to establish the validity of the children’s testimony.
Michaels was freed on bond on March 30, 1993, and on June 23, 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the reversal. The court said, “We find that the interrogations that occurred in this case were improper and there is substantial likelihood that the evidence derived from them is unreliable.”
On December 2, 1994, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley