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Darwin Crabtree

Other Child Sex Abuse Exonerations with Perjury or False Accusation
On June 27, 1991, 32-year-old Darwin Crabtree was arrested in Butte County, California on charges of sexually molesting his two sons beginning in 1987. The accusations came just months after Crabtree and his former wife finalized their divorce, a proceeding that had lasted several years. By that time, Crabtree had remarried.

He was indicted by a Butte County grand jury on charges of the continuous sexual abuse of his son, Joed, who was 3 in 1987, as well as multiple counts of the abuse of his son, Abijah, who was 7 in 1987 and a single count of the sexual abuse of his daughter, Abilene. The prosecution dismissed the charge involving Abilene prior to trial after she admitted Crabtree had not touched her. Another sister, Lorraine, had consistently said she was not molested.

Crabtree went to trial in Butte County Superior Court in December 1991. The boys, who were by then eight and 12 years old, testified to numerous incidents during which Crabtree grabbed or squeezed their genitals. Joed described 12 incidents, although his testimony also was marked by at least 35 statements of “I don’t recall.” Abijah said Crabtree grabbed his penis twice and masturbated in front of him on one occasion. The boys said the incidents occurred in various places, including a Texaco gas station bathroom and during family holiday gatherings.

The defense contended the incidents never occurred and pointed to a report by an investigator for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office that documented a conversation with the children’s mother, Kathryn Logan. During a drive in the car, the subject of the forthcoming trial came up. “All the kids are…apprehensive about it,” Logan said. “They asked if they all had to testify. I told them that (Lorraine) didn’t apparently because Darwin hadn’t touched her. The kids got pretty upset about that. Then Abijah said, ‘I lied—he never touched me so I don’t have to testify.’ I just looked at him. He said, ‘Well, just a couple of times.’”

Crabtree testified and denied ever sexually molesting the boys.

On December 18, 1991, the jury convicted Crabtree of one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child, two counts of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 14, and four counts of lewd conduct in the presence of a child.

Prior to sentencing, Crabtree obtained a new attorney who filed a motion for a new trial. The motion contended that Crabtree’s trial defense attorney had a conflict of interest because he was simultaneously acting as a special prosecutor in a murder case in Lassen County. The judge granted the motion and vacated Crabtree’s convictions.

The prosecution appealed. In July 1993, the Third Districct California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling, reinstated Crabtree’s convictions, and remanded the case for sentencing. On February 24, 1994, Crabtree, who had been free on bond during the appeal process, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The Third District California Court of Appeal upheld the convictions in 1995. Crabtree filed several state law petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, but all were denied. In 1997, he filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, again raising the issue of his trial attorney’s conflict of interest.

The petition also said that his trial attorney had failed to call certain family members who could have testified that they were present during some of the holiday gatherings, and that had been no opportunity for the molestations to occur. Some of the witnesses would have contradicted the boys’ accounts of who was present during the gatherings. For instance, Joed had testified that when they were at Crabtree’s girlfriend’s home, they decided to go swimming. The other children went to the river, leaving Joed and Crabtree behind. Joed said that as he was getting dressed to meet the others, Crabtree came into the room and grabbed his penis.

However, Sandra Crabtree, who was Crabtree’s second wife, could have testified that on that day, Darwin went to the river with the children while she stayed behind and helped Joed find his shoes.

The petition, however, was denied in September 2000.

Crabtree was released on parole on November 13, 2001. In 2008, after Crabtree completed his parole, Joed and Abijah, by then in their 30s, visited him and recanted their testimony. They apologized and said they had made the allegations as a result of continuous questioning and pressure from their therapist, child welfare investigators, and law enforcement.

At the time, however, Crabtree had no legal avenue to seek to vacate his convictions because such remedies were restricted to defendants who were still in custody or on parole.

In January 2017, a new law went into effect in California that permitted defendants to seek relief after completion of their sentences and parole.

In September 2017, Crabtree, represented by Paige Kaneb, an attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project, filed a motion in Butte County Superior Court seeking to vacate his conviction. The motion cited the new law and the recantations of Joed and Abijah.

The motion said that after Crabtree and his wife separated, the children started acting out in school and the school offered free therapy sessions. Unfortunately they were placed in the care of Kathryn Schwartz, an unlicensed intern training to be a therapist.

The motion said, “Only after months of countless therapy sessions that focused on exploring everyone’s anger at Darwin, under pointed questioning about sexual touching, then seven-year-old Joed said that Darwin had touched Joed’s penis in the shower and said, ‘This is a cute little weenie.’”

The motion said that as the therapy sessions continued, interspersed with law enforcement and child protective service interviews, the allegations “mushroomed from that single incident to allegations that Darwin had molested both Joed and Abijah on approximately 15 different occasions as each boy ‘remembered’ more incidents under what we now know was suggestive and improper questioning.”

The therapist first reported Crabtree to Butte County Child Protective Services when the boys said he had hit them. However, Michael Coffron, a protective services investigator, closed that investigation by concluding that what was involved was discipline, not physical abuse.

When Schwartz subsequently reported Joed’s comment about being touched in the shower, Coffron reopened the case and interviewed the children. Ultimately, he reported that Joed said Crabtree touched him twice over his clothing. Abijah denied being touched, as did their sisters, Lorraine and Abilene. Coffron reported Joed’s statement to Butte County authorities and Kristen Simpson, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, was assigned to question the children.

A month later, while being questioned by the investigator, Abijah and Abilene said Crabtree sexually molested them. However, Abilene subsequently recanted her claim and said she was not molested.

Dr. Bradley McAuliff, an expert in children’s suggestibility and forensic interviewing, reviewed the case for Crabtree and concluded, “The interviews and questioning in this case violated nearly every principle of proper forensic interviewing and incorporated almost every method that decades of research have shown can contaminate children’s reports and render them unreliable.”

McAuliff said that the sexual abuse allegations against Crabtree were inaccurate and unreliable.

After Kaneb presented the evidence supporting the motion to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, the prosecution conducted its own investigation and concluded that the recantations were credible.

On January 17, 2018, Butte County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Merrifield granted the motion and vacated Crabtree’s convictions. The charges were then dismissed and Ramsey apologized to Crabtree for having played a role in his wrongful conviction.

In 2019, Crabtree filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California against Butte County, Schwartz and Simpson. The lawsuit was settled in February 2022 for $75,000. He was granted state compension of $440,020 in March 2023.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/22/2018
Last Updated: 4/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1991
Sentence:16 years
Age at the date of reported crime:32
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No