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. The earliest of these cases involved Debbie McCuan and her husband, Alvin McCuan
, and their friends Scott
and Brenda Kniffen
, all of whom were convicted of participating in a “child sex-abuse ring” in which they abused numerous children.
In 1980, the McCuan’s daughter Becky told family members that she had been molested by her grandfather, Rod Phelps. A doctor examined Becky and confirmed that she had been sexually abused, and a report was filed with Child Protective Service (CPS). After conducting an investigation, in October 1981 CPS officials told police they had determined that both Becky and her sister Dawn had been abused by Phelps. The children’s step-grandmother, Mary Ann Barbour, had a history of mental illness, and around this time she suffered a complete mental breakdown. She began to believe that the McCuans had also abused their daughters, and that the girls were not safe in their parents’ home.
When Kern County officials interviewed the girls, both said that they had been sexually abused by Phelps, and also by their father. They denied being abused by anyone else. The girls were immediately removed from their home and taken into state custody. Barbour then told authorities that she believed that the girls’ mother should also be investigated. Although Debbie McCuan was cleared by a social worker, Barbour was given custody of the McCuan girls. Barbour then started making claims that the McCuans were running a large sex abuse ring that involved other children as well. Both girls, now in Barbour’s care, confirmed the existence of the sex ring in interviews with authorities. They began to make bizarre claims: that they had been hung from hooks, forced to act in child pornography movies, and beaten with belts. The police found no physical evidence to corroborate these stories.
In late 1981, as the allegations escalated, Alvin asked his friend Scott Kniffen to serve as a character witness on his behalf. In further police interviews, the McCuan girls then said that both Scott Kniffen and his wife, Brenda, were involved in the sex abuse ring, and said that the Kniffens’ two sons had also been victimized. The Kniffen boys were taken into custody and interrogated.
Though the boys repeatedly denied there had been any sex abuse in their household, the police officer investigating them did not mention these denials in his report. Finally, after being told by police that they would be allowed to go home if they admitted that they had been abused, they accused their parents, the McCuans and other adults in the neighborhood of abusing them. On April 8, 1982, the McCuans, the Kniffens and several other Kern County residents who had been implicated were arrested and charged with abusing the four children.
The defendants waited in jail for over a year for their trial, at one point holding a hunger strike in an attempt to get attention for their case. The McCuans and the Kniffens were tried together in 1984. All four children testified against them. Prosecutors also relied on medical testimony from Dr. Bruce Woodling, who had examined the children and claimed that he had observed a “wink response” in their anuses which proved that they had been sodomized. The McCuans and the Kniffens were convicted by a jury on May 16, 1984. Alvin McCuan was sentenced to 268 years; Debbie McCuan to 252 years; Scott and Brenda Kniffen each received a 240 year sentence.
The McCuans and the Kniffens appealed, but their convictions were affirmed by the California Court of Appeal on November 18, 1990. After considering a petition for rehearing, the Court of Appeal modified its opinion to add that if the Kniffens and McCuans were able to show that Dr. Woodling’s “wink response” evidence did not prove sodomy, some or all of the verdicts in the case might seriously be undermined. On March 14, 1991, the California Supreme Court denied the Kniffens’ and McCuans’ petitions for review.
In 1992, both Kniffen boys recanted their testimony and told officials that police and prosecutors had pressured them into testifying falsely against their parents. In 1993, all four defendants filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus in the Kern County Superior Court. They also presented evidence that Dr. Woodling’s supposed “wink response” did not indicate a history of sodomy; numerous medical studies conducted after the convictions showed that this response occurred in a significant proportion of non-abused children, and virtually no one in the relevant scientific community continued to defend the “wink response” as evidence of sodomy.
In 1994 the habeas corpus petitions were denied by the Kern County Superior Court. However, the California Court of Appeal reversed the denial and send the petitions back to state court for a hearing. In August 1996, Kern County Superior Court Judge Jon Steubbe vacated the convictions of all four defendants based on the same petitions and exhibits: the recantations by the child witnesses, faulty forensic evidence, and substantial police and prosecutorial misconduct. Alvin and Debbie McCuan, and Scott and Brenda Kniffen were released immediately, and within two weeks, prosecutors dismissed all charges.
- Alexandra Gross