Saving Normal

Mental health and what is normal.

Mass Hysteria Leads to a Terrible Injustice

An innocent man spends 27 years in prison for a crime that never happened.

Note: The following is an Op Ed piece I wrote for the Raleigh News and Observer attempting to correct an egregious injustice and to set the historical record straight.

 Andrew Junior Chandler has been unjustly incarcerated in a North Carolina prison for 27 years, charged with a crime that almost surely never happened.

 In 1986, Chandler was employed as a van driver for a day care center in Madison County. His nightmare began when a child supposedly announced to her mother: “We’ve been (having sexual intercourse.)” As was typical of the time, the investigation went far beyond any reasonable pursuit of real evidence and instead depended on the unsupported and improbable testimony of suggestible 3- to 5-year-old children.

 Chandler’s case occurred during a period of national mass hysteria. Across the country, young kids suddenly began accusing their day care workers of performing bizarre acts of sexual and satanic ritual abuse. It turned out that the charges were all bogus – the result of bullying and coaching by overzealous investigators, gullible therapists and frightened parents

 The most publicized cases were at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the Little Rascals Day Care in Edenton – but dozens of similar misguided prosecutions were brought by ambitious prosecutors throughout the country. Janet Reno, who got the ball rolling in Florida, later became U.S. attorney general. Mike Easley later became governor of North Carolina.

 The epidemic of wild accusations turned out to be no more than a media-driven witch hunt, in many ways similar to the Salem trials 300 years earlier. The craze brought out the credulous and mean-spirited worst in parents, police, prosecutors, the press, therapists, judges and juries. Never once was any prosecutor able to produce convincing physical evidence or a single adult eyewitness.

 The case against Chandler was built on shifting and unconvincing arguments. Seven of the children who rode in his van claimed that two adult passengers, both mentally impaired, had performed sex acts on them. Then, after months of prosecutorial and therapist pressure, the children decided it was actually Chandler – or perhaps Chandler, the two impaired adults and also Pinocchio! – who would repeatedly drive off the route to a park by a river, strip the children of their clothes, troop them down to the river, put them all in a rowboat, commit a variety of sexual acts, put them back on the bus and then take them home.

 Amazingly, these far-fetched accounts were taken as factual evidence even though there had been no previous indication of any problems with the children, with the day care center or with Chandler.

 Only Chandler was prosecuted. The two impaired adults testified against him in exchange for a probation-only guilty plea. Other mentally impaired adults and an employee of the day care testified they had seen no misconduct. The prosecution relied almost exclusively on hearsay from adults. On cross-examination, four child-witnesses all admitted they were only “pretending” to have been molested; they were repeating tales they thought the adults wanted them to tell.

 Nonetheless, an Asheville jury convicted Chandler – persuaded by “expert” testimony that was not the least bit expert and that by today’s legal standards would certainly not be admissible – and he received two life sentences. A succession of appeals has failed to win him the new trial that would allow a fair and thorough reinvestigation of the evidence, uncontaminated by the hysteria of the time and allowing testimony that is only now considered admissible.

 The craze petered out in the late 1990s, but not before scores of innocent day care workers were convicted by juries or intimidated into plea agreements. Seven adults were imprisoned in the Little Rascals case, but within a few years all charges were dropped because of prosecutorial errors. They were appropriately vindicated and released – while Chandler still languishes in prison.

 I feel partly responsible. During this period of temporary national insanity, I was chairman of the task force preparing DSM IV, psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This position gave me a bully pulpit that I could have used to point out the utter nuttiness of a national witch hunt based on the testimony of suggestible kids and phony experts. To my shame, I remained silent.

 The damage is done and cannot be undone. But the very least we can all do now is admit our mistakes, set the record straight and re-examine the charges that have imprisoned Andrew Junior Chandler for more than 27 years.

 Between 1901 and 1905, N.C. Gov. Charles B. Aycock granted 369 pardons. The pardon is a time-honored method of righting legal wrongs that has a necessary place in American jurisprudence. But pardons in North Carolina have almost disappeared since Gov. Jim Hunt left office in 2001. It is impossible to imagine a more deserving applicant than Andrew Chandler.

 Let’s hope that Gov Pat McCrory will review the mistaken judgment of his misnamed “clemency office” and correct this stain on the reputation of North Carolina justice.

Allen Frances, M.D., was chair of the DSM-IV Task Force and is currently professor emeritus at Duke.

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