Janet Reno's Child Abuse
"There is hope for Fuster and Snowden. Across the country, abuse convictions based on Reno-like tactics are being reversed as courts begin to understand the travesties perpetrated by zealous and vainglorious prosecutors during the past decade and a half"
On April 30, 1993, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the conviction of Margaret Kelly Michaels, a 26-year-old aspiring actress and teacher who had been convicted five years earlier of molesting 21 preschool children by inserting silverware, toys, and swords into their bodily orifices, and forcing them to eat feces and to have intercourse with her--all during the school day at the busy Maplewood preschool at which she taught. Michaels had served five years of a 47-year sentence before the appeals court condemned the prosecutor's use of threats and bribes to make the alleged young "victims" testify against her.
Such tactics, the court said, were so coercive that they had probably contaminated the children's minds with false memories of abuse that never happened. Because of this, the children's stories were now suspect and could not be trusted. Eventually, the prosecutor's office dropped the charges against Michaels.
I was one of Michaels's attorneys, and the day after Kelly was released from prison I received a call from a woman named Kristine Fuster. Kris had read about my involvement, and she wanted me to represent her father, Frank Fuster. In 1985 a Florida jury had convicted Fuster of sexually molesting 21 children whom his wife baby-sat in their home in a Miami suburb.
Kris told me that her father's conviction was an even worse travesty than Michaels's. She said it was based totally on unreliable medical evidence, statements by children procured through coercion and deceit, and on the testimony of a 17-year-old co-defendant who agreed to cooperate only after being drugged and pressured.
Her father didn't have any money for a lawyer, Kris said, but as I talked with her I realized that this was a famous case that had been the subject of both a book, Unspeakable Acts, by Jan Hollingsworth (Congdon & Weed), and a television movie of the same title. In an attempt to lure me with a supreme challenge, Kris told me that the person who had prosecuted Frank Fuster was none other than the current Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno, who at the time was the lead prosecutor in Miami.
I wanted nothing to do with the matter. Since the Kelly Michaels drama had become national news, my mail and my answering machine had been choked with requests from prisoners looking for a lawyer to take their case--free of charge. Having spent several years earning next to nothing working for Michaels and a slew of other indigent defendants, I was hoping that the end of the Michaels case was the end of my not-for-profit career. Besides, I supported Janet Reno's nomination as Attorney General. I couldn't believe she would have anything to do with a prosecution even half as shameful as it sounded.
Kris mentioned that her father was already being represented by Fort Lauderdale attorney Arthur Cohen. Seizing upon this excuse, I said that even if I were interested, there was nothing I could do if Frank already had a lawyer. Kris insisted that I talk to Cohen. In an effort to shake her, I called him. Cohen had taken the matter pro bono. He welcomed me to the case. Before I knew it, he had shipped me several cartons of trial transcripts and videotapes.
As I waded through the transcript, my curiosity turned to shock. I saw no reliable evidence that any of the children had ever been molested, let alone that the culprit was Frank Fuster. Only one of the alleged victims testified about abuse. For the rest the jury saw videotapes on which investigators elicited abuse stories from small children using the same coercive tactics that Michaels's appellate judges condemned.
The Michaels case had already shown that prosecutors and so-called experts are quite capable of bastardizing the judicial system and the Constitution to gain convictions in child-abuse cases.
But the Fuster case was much worse than anything I'd seen so far. During her tenure in Miami, Janet Reno had not only succumbed to the hysteria of the child-abuse panic of the 1980s, she had reveled in it. The prosecution of Frank Fuster was one of the first successful "ritual abuse" cases, and Reno's work on it--intimidation, coercion, and all--would become a national model for gaining convictions.
There is a striking similarity between Reno's conduct in the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the prosecution of Frank Fuster. Reno justified the ill-fated Ranch Apocalypse attack with the assertion that during the standoff she had been given "the clear impression that since the FBI had assumed command of the situation, they had learned that the Branch Davidians had been beating babies." There was no evidence of this, however. And after the debacle, no one, including Reno, could remember who had given her that information.
In Miami, nearly a decade earlier, spurred by an accusation against Frank and Ileana Fuster, Reno had acted no less rashly. She had launched into an impassioned, high-profile pursuit of a conviction through the systematic production of evidence to corroborate her impression that Frank Fuster was a child molester.
At Waco as in the Fuster case she displayed a profound failing when it came to children. Unmitigated, brute force--children or the innocent be damned--was Reno's response to any intimation that kids were being hurt, regardless of evidence to the contrary. In both situations, lives were destroyed.
From a prosecutor's perspective, Frank Fuster was the perfect child abuser. A Cuban immigrant, he had already served four years in a New York prison for manslaughter, and four years probation in Florida following a conviction for fondling a nine-year-old girl's breast through her clothing.
But by 1984 he had begun a new life. He owned a business and a home in Country Walk, an upscale subdevelopment near Miami. He had recently married 16-year-old Ileana Flores, a native of Honduras, who had immigrated to Miami with her mother. Because Frank's business was not entirely successful, Ileana ran a baby-sitting service from their home.
Donna Silver (some names here and hereafter have been changed to protect the parties involved) also lived in Country Walk. Donna had left her job as a lawyer to have a child. When Billy was 18 months old, she decided to go back to work. A friend recommended Ileana Fuster as a baby-sitter, and in the spring of 1984 Donna took Billy to Ileana's for the day. It was the first time the toddler had ever been left with a stranger.
When Donna picked up Billy that afternoon, he seemed cranky and groggy. Ileana said that Billy had just awakened from a nap, but Donna was suspicious. Sometime earlier, another mother had been bathing her child when the child told her to "kiss my body" the way Ileana kissed the babies' bodies. That child's comment had sparked rumors about Ileana in the Country Walk community.
Donna was not satisfied with Ileana's explanation. She concluded that Ileana had drugged her son. Rather than immediately take Billy to a doctor, Donna phoned a neighbor, Jan Hollingsworth, who, before she wrote Unspeakable Acts, worked for a local television news program that had aired a three-part expose critical of government regulation of Florida's child-care system. After hanging up with Donna, Hollingsworth called a contact in Reno's office and related her friend's concerns. A background check of the Fusters quickly revealed Frank's criminal history.
When Donna Silver made her accusation against Ileana Fuster, Reno was up for reelection as state attorney (a Florida counterpart to district attorney). Hollingsworth suggested that Reno meet with Joseph and Laurie Braga, two self-styled experts at interviewing children who had been featured in Hollingsworth's television report. Reno was impressed with the Bragas, and agreed to set up a special unit in the prosecutor's office where alleged child-abuse victims could be interviewed by professionals like the Bragas.
The Bragas quickly became featured players in Reno's office. She provided them with space, and they filled it with child-sized furniture and toys, as well as with their ever-present "anatomically correct" dolls.
The Bragas were touted as having a special gift for communicating with children. But their real expertise--as even a cursory review of their interviews suggests--was in coercing youngsters to talk about sex. The Braga interview method was a systematic application of suggestion, coercion, and manipulation, beginning with ingratiating banter, escalating through intimations of sexual activity that the Bragas thought had happened, and culminating, in the case at hand, with the outright insistence that Frank and Ileana were child abusers. Crucial to the Bragas' technique was their refusal to accept a child's denial of abuse, coupled with the tactic of praising the kids for any statement, no matter how vague, that might tend to incriminate the Fusters.
Consider an interview Laurie Braga did with four-year-old Jean.
Surviving videotapes show Laurie Braga telling the girl that her two-and-a-half-year-old brother, Dan, "talked to us. And he told us about some stuff that happened when he was at Frank and Ileana's."
"What did he say?" Jean asks.
"Well, ... mainly he showed us some things with the dolls that are over there. He took the dolls and he showed us some things that happened with the dolls."
"What happened?" the child wants to know.
"Well, maybe before I tell you what he said, you could tell me if you remember anything. Okay? Is there anything you could tell me?"
"They never did nothing bad to me," Jean insists.
"So did Ileana and Frank do anything bad to the other children?"
"Not that you saw," was Braga's retort.
After some discussion, Braga tells Jean that "some of the children said that they were scared because they [the Fusters] wore masks. Your brother said that...."
Braga then asks why Jean thinks Frank is "bad."
"My mom told me."
"Did she tell you what he did that was bad?"
Jean shakes her head, no. She asks Braga, "Do you know what he did?"
Braga: "... Would you like me to tell you what Dan said? ... Okay. Dan said he [Dan] took the dolls ... and one of the things is that he took all the clothes off the dolls ... He said that [at the Fusters] the children played a game, like 'Ring Around the Rosy' --"
"With no clothes on?" Jean ventures.
"With no clothes on.... Do you think Dan was telling the truth?" The child shakes her head, no. "You don't? ... Does Dan tell stories?" Jean nods, yes. "You don't think Dan was saying the truth?" Jean's answer is inaudible. Braga: "Sure, we can play that game." Jean: "Because they're only fake dolls."
Braga agrees. "Right, they're not real, they are just pretend.... Maybe you can show me if they were just pretend, what they might do.... Now what kind of a game do you think they would play?.... Just make believe."
The child begins to play "Duck, Duck" with the dolls.
"Let's just pretend that maybe Dan wasn't telling a story. Okay? Maybe it was true that Frank and Ileana were taking off their clothes and the children taking off their clothes and ... Frank and Ileana were touching the children in private places. Let's just pretend that maybe it was true.... If Frank did touch the children--in their private places--then that was something he shouldn't have done, then that's why they put him in jail."
Jean reiterates her consistent account, "because they didn't do anything to me ... I would tell my mom, but if they said it was a secret, I would say I wouldn't do it, but I would trick them ... I would tell my mom and dad."
Braga offers a new suggestion--fear: "Some of the children ... are afraid.... Some children said that they [the Fusters] were acting like monsters and they wore these masks and they scared them."
"Is that true?" Jean asks.
"I am not sure," Braga answers, "but some of the children said so, and I believe the children, because I don't think children make up stories like that. Do you?"
"Which children?" the girl demands.
"Well, Dan. And some of the other children."
"They were bigger than me?" Jean asks. "...Did they tell that they were naked or anything like that...? What did they say?"
"They said that they played games with Frank and Ileana--some of the little children. That everybody took off their clothes and that they played some games and that people touched each other's private parts."
Jean: "That's true."
"Is it true?" Braga echoes.
Obviously impressed by Braga's reports of the other children's accounts, the little girl declares: "The other children said it, so Dan might be right ... because bigger children said that ... now I found out that it was true, because the other children said it."
Braga tries to get anything new and original from the child--"Maybe you could tell us something..."--but Jean just shakes her head, no.
Behavioral-science research conducted during the past several years has revealed that these kinds of techniques are extremely coercive.
While ethics prohibits researchers from replicating the exact interrogations used during the Reno cases, experiments have been devised that use mild versions of interview tactics employed by the Bragas and other so-called experts. The experiments show that the methods used by Reno's investigators are far more likely to implant false memories in a preschooler than to uncover what the child's actual experience might have been. (The Bragas could not be reached for comment.)
It was not until the early 1990s that this research was published, but that is no excuse for Reno's use of manipulative methods to build her case. For decades, courts have disqualified testimony obtained through coercion and suggestion. In fact such methods can be so persuasive that they have long been known to make people admit to crimes that were never even committed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bragas' interviews with Frank's own seven-year-old son, Jaime. They conducted four sessions with the boy, and during the first three their standard methods of persuasion are of no avail. Jaime remains firm. His father never molested him, and there is nothing that suggestions or anatomical dolls can do to change that denial.
Joe Braga: "Did you ever play any games with people who would take your clothes off?"
"Clothes off?.... No, never," Jaime replies.
"Never played with people with no clothes on," Jaime insists.
Disbelieving, Braga tries again. "Did anyone ever talk to you, like Ileana or your father, not to talk about any games where anybody took their clothes off? .... Did you ever come home to be around the house and see anyone in your house playing games with children who took their clothes off?"
Jaime explains that he is being truthful. He tells the Bragas that no one told him to protect Frank. In fact, he says, Ileana told him "just to tell everybody even the bad and the good....Only that way I could get my dad out."
Like the other children in the case, Jaime was subjected to a physical examination. Like the others, the exam did not reveal any evidence of abuse. The youngsters were also tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Under the use of a newly developed procedure, the "quick test," Jaime tested "positive" for gonorrhea of the throat. He was the only child whose test came out this way. Reno gave the Bragas the "positive" result and instructed them to use whatever means necessary to make Jaime reinforce the finding by saying he had fellated his father. Finally, during the fourth interview, the Bragas wear the boy down through sheer persistence.
"... I know you are not telling the truth, because you said that no one put their penis in your mouth, but yet you had the test, the test said you had gonorrhea," Joseph Braga tells him, and continues to pound away at the boy: "You said you don't remember anybody putting their penis in your mouth? Do you think it was your father?" Laurie Braga: "Let's suppose that it did [happen], okay? Because the doctor said it did, even though you don't remember who did; [do] you think [you know who] might have done that to you? Do you have any idea, even if you don't remember?" Joe picks up again: "Do you remember the first time that your dad did it, did you ask him to stop?" Laurie Braga offers another possibility: "Did anybody ever hypnotize you?" Both Bragas pursue this theme, Joe asking if it's possible that Jaime was hypnotized when "anybody put their penis in your mouth," Laurie adding, "Maybe you were asleep or didn't know."
"You keep saying nobody put penises in your mouth, but you had gonorrhea...," Joe persists. "All the other children have told us things, and the same children told the same story every time. They haven't been talking to each other. We didn't see them all at once. We see them all one by one. They never got together. They haven't seen one another since," Joe says.
Laurie takes another tack. "I want to ask you to try to explain something to me, okay? ... We've talked to you, we've talked to a lot of different children ... and the children didn't talk to each other, but they talked to us and told us some things that happened in your house, okay? They talked about things that they did with clothes off, and things that Frank and Ileana--"
"Playing 'Ring Around the Rosie,'" Joe inserts. Laurie: "Clothes off and playing different sex games." Joe: "Kissing each other's penis and each other's vagina." Laurie: "And [they] said you were involved too, and you went to the doctor and the doctor found out you had gonorrhea in your throat, and the only way to get that, as I explained to you before, is if a person has been putting a penis in your mouth.... Now with all those things, I know on one side you're saying--on the other side, nothing happened, how can you explain to me the difference between what you are saying and what we know from having gone to the doctor and finding out something that is a fact?"
The interview drags on. Joe asks Jaime if he's getting hungry. When the boy says he is, Braga tells him to think again about these questions, "because I have to tell you this: If the test doesn't say that you have gonorrhea, then I could believe you. If the other children hadn't told me that you are a part of, then I would believe you, but all the children--" Jaime wants to go to lunch. "He's going to lunch," Joe Braga taunts. "He wants to avoid the conversation."
The Bragas finally release Jaime so that he can eat. Following the lunch break, Jaime quickly complies with the Bragas' demands as best he can, plying them with the stories of beatings, sexual molestation, and scatological games they want, so that he would be allowed to go home.
Tapes of the Braga interviews with Jaime were played for the jury, and contributed in no small part to Fuster's conviction. But in a later deposition, Jaime insisted that he agreed with them only because he was "tired of saying the truth, they were keeping saying I don't believe you, I don't believe you." It was "because I was getting tired ... [that] I told a lie." When asked how he knew what lies to tell, the child replied, "because the doctor [Braga] told me." Jaime's recantation was of no moment to the prosecutor.
Even so, Jaime has remained steadfast through the years. After Frank and Ileana were arrested, the boy went to live with his natural mother and her husband, who later adopted him. Nearly six years later, Jaime was a complainant in a civil suit against the insurance company for the Country Walk development. Several families of children in the case obtained large cash awards in similar suits. In a deposition taken for an action that could have brought him more than a million dollars, Jaime, who was now 15, once again categorically denied that his father had ever sexually assaulted him or anyone else. To this day, he says he has no memory of ever experiencing or witnessing such crimes. He remembers the Bragas, though. In a sworn statement in 1994, Jaime said, "I remember them just questioning me and questioning me and not leaving me alone, and I think it got down to the point where I didn't know what they said to me. ... I remember just wanting to leave, just wanting to go."
The Bragas may have browbeat Jaime, but they did sincerely believe that the gonorrhea test used on him was reliable. They were apparently unaware that the procedure had drawbacks. After Fuster's trial, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control concluded that the test is notorious for giving false positives.
By the time the case went to trial the allegations against the Fusters included satanic rituals, threats with masks and weapons, the drugging of 21 children, locking them in closets, forcing them to consume feces and urine, to dance naked, eat human hands, sip ants through straws--dramatic and shocking atrocities, if true. But by the time the Fuster case was ready for court, the use of so-called experts to extract abuse stories from children had come under fire. Juries, and even some prosecutors, were beginning to notice that many investigators were telling children what to say. That many of the children's stories were patently absurd was also becoming apparent.
Reno knew that to succeed where other prosecutors had failed, she would have to give the Fuster jury more than stories of abuse elicited by the Bragas and a "positive" gonorrhea test in only one child. The fact that Frank and Ileana insisted that they were innocent was becoming troublesome. So Reno's office decided to focus on convicting Frank by offering Ileana a reduced sentence if she would plead guilty and testify against her husband.
When the Fusters were arrested in August of 1984, they had been married for only 11 months. Ileana was just 17 years old. Her refusal to cooperate with the prosecutor resulted in increased pressure on her.
Ileana was not invincible, and Reno played on her weaknesses. Shortly after Ileana's arrest, she had spent some time in "protective custody"--isolation. According to Shirley Blando, the prison chaplain, this had a traumatic effect on Ileana. Private investigator Stephen Dinerstein, a frequent visitor to Ileana in jail, said, "She was often kept under suicide watch--kept naked. When I would visit her, the fact that she was in isolation would be half the conversation. She really had it tough. She was just a kid." When Ileana refused the prosecutor's requests for testimony against Frank, she was returned to isolation.
In October 1994, ten years later, Ileana spoke, under oath, with attorney Arthur Cohen. A sworn statement of that interview was entered into the court record. She said she'd been drugged most of the time that she was in jail. The sedation "...would help me rest, they said, because I wasn't eating properly and ... I wasn't sleeping properly." She was often unable to keep track of time, or what day it was.
During much of the year she was in jail, her attorney, Michael Van Zamft, was Ileana's only visitor, and his conversations consisted of repeated entreaties for her to remember anything about child abuse. As the trial neared, Van Zamft increased the pressure. In her sworn statement Ileana recalled, "He said that I needed to remember something, or that I must have something to say. And then he thought that I had problems and that I should be seen by a psychologist." He began frightening Ileana, telling her that the prosecution was going to win the case "and that it was necessary for me to remember everything and say it." If she didn't, Van Zamft told Ileana, she would "spend the rest of [her] life in jail."
Despite a reputable psychologist's judgment that Ileana did not suffer from amnesia or any other memory disorder, Van Zamft hired two other psychologists to "bring back her memory." Michael Rappaport and Merry Sue Haber ran a company called Behavior Changers. Their assignment was to work on Ileana and "retrieve" the abuse memories she had blocked from her mind. Ileana remembers meeting Rappaport and Haber. "They were very nice.... They asked me the same questions that my attorney had asked me all that time." As she had before, Ileana told the Behavior Changers that she had nothing to say about abuse. The psychologists "explained" to her that she "was having problems and that they were there to help [her]." They diagnosed her as having blocked out events from her past.
Rappaport and Haber began visiting Ileana almost every day and some nights. She was often awakened immediately before sessions with them. At first, they talked about her childhood and other positive memories, but as Rappaport and Haber won her confidence, they changed the subject to sexual abuse. Ileana soon recalled for the psychologists that Frank had abused her during their marriage. She maintains this recollection to this day. Using notes from the Braga interviews, the psychologists described vivid scenarios.
Ileana began having nightmares about the actions Rappaport and Haber would describe to her. She argued with these Behavior Changers for a while, telling them that her nightmares were their accounts of abuse, not her own memories. Those things had never happened, she told them. But the long sessions were tiring, and Ileana's dreams became filled with "the things they were telling me." She became confused about what really happened, and eventually caved in to the pressure and became convinced that "probably those things happened, and I just didn't remember because they were so shocking...."
The "relaxation and visualization" methods used by Rappaport and his partner have long been known to be remarkably powerful tools. By using these "exercises," the Behavior Changers put Ileana into the same kind of trance as that induced during hypnosis. From there, childhood memories of abuse could be implanted just like traditional post-hypnotic suggestion. Rappaport recognized the power of his methods.
In a 1991 interview with journalist Debbie Nathan he described his work as being "almost like a hypnotic thing ... manipulation ... reverse brainwashing." Rappaport and Haber declined comment to Penthouse.
Ileana had one other caller: Janet Reno. Rappaport told Nathan that the prosecutor paid 30 visits to Ileana while the young woman was in isolation. (Rappaport has since asserted that 30 was an exaggeration on his part.) Ileana remembers Reno telling her "she wanted to help me, and that something real bad had happened to me and it was her duty to make sure that justice was done...."
A year after her arrest, Ileana pleaded guilty to sexual abuse. Even as she addressed the court, however, she was unconvinced of her guilt. She told the judge: "[I] would like you to know that I am pleading guilty not because I feel guilty, but because I think--I think it's ... for my own best interest and for the children and for the court and for all the people that are working on the case. But I am not pleading guilty because I feel guilty.... I am innocent of all those charges.... I am innocent. I am just doing it--I am pleading guilty to get all of this over ... for my own good...."
Weeks later, Ileana says, while still on the drugs prescribed to her in jail, she gave three depositions in which she provided Reno with the coveted testimony against Frank. Rappaport accompanied her, "to give me strength ... so that I could pretend I was talking to him ... because I was afraid of the attorneys and the courts," and he supplied her with a series of verbal cues to assist her "recollections" of abuse.
Reno sat next to her and occasionally held her hand. During the depositions, Ileana recounted the stuff of her newly recovered memories; she told of being raped, sodomized, cut, burned, and drugged by Frank. She said he had fondled and kissed the children, and put suppositories into their rectums. And she provided bizarre stories of torture, claiming that Frank had put snakes in her vagina and hung her by the wrists in the garage while suspending Jaime by his feet.
In the end Ileana was sentenced to ten years. After serving fewer than four, she was released and deported to Honduras. Frank was not so lucky. He was convicted and sentenced to six life terms.
Several months after Ileana's 1994 sworn statement recounting her experiences with the Behavior Changers, the Miami trial judge assigned to hear Fuster's motion for a new trial ruled that that statement was sufficient evidence to require a hearing, at which Ileana could testify by telephone or satellite transmission from Honduras. Almost immediately after the judge's ruling, Tommy Watson, a local minister who had been instrumental in negotiating Ileana's early release and relocation to her native land, went to see her in Honduras. He returned with a letter, bearing her signature, which said she'd been confused during her interview with Cohen, that Frank had indeed abused her and the children, and that she would not testify in his behalf.
Though Watson has denied influencing Ileana, a source close to her family reports that she was frightened into believing that her cooperation with Cohen had put her and her loved ones in danger. That was the last Ileana has been heard from by Cohen or any of the other people to whom she had spoken about her incarceration. Van Zamft could not be reached for comment.
The Snowden family read newspaper accounts of what Arthur Cohen and I were doing to try to get a new trial for Frank Fuster. They got in touch and asked if we would review the conviction of Grant Snowden. In 1984, Snowden was successfully prosecuted by Reno, who used the same tactics as she had in the Fuster case--coercing children, using questionable medical evidence. We agreed to take a look at the case. As I began reading the records of the trial and the interviews with the alleged child "victims," it became clear to me that the Fuster case was no accident or isolated lapse in Reno's judgment. Her zeal to convict people for child abuse was again the principal factor. Cohen and I took the case.
In the spring of 1984 Grant Snowden had no idea that he would become the target of a Reno child-abuse prosecution. Like everyone else in south Florida, he had heard of the Fuster case, but Grant and his family were so unlike the Fusters, the suggestion that the Fuster prosecution could have any bearing on his life would have seemed absurd to him. Grant was a highly decorated North Miami policeman, and 1983's Police Officer of the Year. He loved his job and excelled at it. He and his wife, Janice, had been married for nearly 15 years and had two children. To make ends meet, Janice baby-sat some neighborhood children.
That spring, Grant noticed that one of them, four-year-old Greg Wilkes, had welts on his face, as if he had been beaten. Concerned, Grant and Janice warned Greg's parents that if the boy were dropped off in that condition again, they would notify Florida's child-protection agency. Soon thereafter, Greg's father reported to the police that Grant had sexually molested Greg by kissing the boy's penis and putting his own penis in Greg's mouth.
Reno's office investigated the Wilkeses' allegation, and by June had concluded that there was "insufficient ... evidence to file charges." Among the information that undoubtedly led to that decision was the fact that a psychologist who treated Greg--and who was a witness for the prosecution in the Fuster case--had felt compelled to warn Mr. Wilkes "to stop putting pressure on Greg to say things he was not ready to say," particularly "that [Snowden] had put his penis in Greg's mouth."
In the summer of 1984 the south Florida media became consumed by the Fuster investigation. Stories condemning the Fusters and warning of the risks faced by children in child care had become a local obsession. As public imagination and fear were ignited, Reno's office became deluged with reports of child abuse. According to a story in the Miami Herald, by the end of August Reno was investigating 20 criminal cases of abuse, and 11 day-care centers had been closed. Amidst this communal fury, the parents of another child cared for by Janice Snowden, 11-year-old Carol Banks, came forward with an accusation against Grant Snowden. The prosecutor's office reopened its investigation. Snowden was suspended from the police force.
The Bragas, by then firmly entrenched in Reno's office, were made available to the parents of the children cared for in the Snowden home. A Braga interview along with intense questioning by Carol's mother was all that was needed to make the 11-year-old agree that she was an abused child. Reno proceeded to trial. The jury returned a "not guilty" verdict. But the prosecutor wanted a conviction. Grant was told by the prosecutors during the trial that more "victims" would be produced. He would be tried time and again, one child at a time, until Reno had her conviction.
The Braga interviews continued. Laurie Braga questioned another child, Jennifer Blandes. Before meeting Braga, Jennifer's mother had asked the four-year-old repeatedly if she had been abused. Jennifer was consistent: Nothing had happened to her at the Snowden home. And as the interview with Braga got under way, the little girl continued to deny any mistreatment there. "I need to know what really happened" was Braga's response. When this proved unsuccessful at persuading the child to accuse Snowden, Braga provided her with suggestions of sexual acts from which she could choose, all the while assuring Jennifer that her friends had already described such abuses. Other children "came and talked to me about a grown-up touching them and taking their clothes off and doing something with their penis," Braga said. Jennifer would feel better if she too would tell the "yucky secrets." Jennifer refused to oblige, so Laurie Braga stepped up the pressure.
She brought out her anatomically detailed dolls, undressed them, and told Jennifer to pretend that one of the child dolls was Jennifer and the adult doll was Snowden. Jennifer agreed, but told Braga that first "I'm going to put the clothes back on." As a fully clothed Snowden did not fit the scenario Braga was after, she suggested to Jennifer, "Let's pretend ...," and continued to manipulate the undressed dolls until the confused and frustrated child finally agreed that the Snowden doll put his finger into the Jennifer doll's vagina.
What was clear in the Fuster case was even more apparent in Grant Snowden's: All of Jennifer Blandes's sexual allegations came first from Laurie Braga's mouth. Yet Reno presented Jennifer's testimony as if it were totally from the child's own recollection.
As if the interviews were not enough, Reno allowed her prosecutors to demonize Grant in front of the jury. Through several pretrial motions the prosecutor ensured that the jury would never know of Snowden's exemplary police career, or that he had been acquitted in the first trial. Children who were unrelated to the allegations regarding Jennifer were paraded in front of the jury to testify that Grant had abused them.
Accusing a defendant of "prior bad acts" is usually considered legally improper because it has no bearing on the case at hand. This is especially true where the accusations by witnesses are not established as true.
When it comes to child-abuse cases, the Florida courts are exceptionally generous in allowing "prior bad acts" evidence. But the first witness in the Snowden case was none other than Greg Wilkes--the same child whose allegations had been dismissed months earlier, and whose father had been warned to stop manipulating the child to make accusations against Snowden. Now the prosecutor embraced the Wilkeses, professing full faith in their credibility.
Not surprisingly, Reno got her conviction. Snowden is now serving life in prison.
There is hope for Fuster and Snowden. Across the country, abuse convictions based on Reno-like tactics are being reversed as courts begin to understand the travesties perpetrated by zealous and vainglorious prosecutors during the past decade and a half. Fuster and Snowden face heavy burdens, though. Since I have been involved in the case, no one has contested that the children in the Fuster case were subjected to inquisitorial tactics. Nor has anyone contested that Ileana was manipulated, or that the gonorrhea test used on Jaime has been shown to be unreliable. It's procedural hurdles that have stymied Fuster's progress. Snowden also faces procedural problems. A convicted defendant has a very limited number of opportunities to press his case, even where injustice seems obvious. A federal appeals court is now reviewing Snowden's case.
Janet Reno was handily confirmed as United States Attorney General without being challenged on her handling of any of this. Unfortunately, her first weeks on the job brought her face to face with what might be her greatest disaster. Unable to abide even the unsupported allegation that "babies were being beaten," Reno ordered the assault on Waco. The rest is history.