Originally posted on July 21, 2011
False accusations of sexual abuse occur more often than people think. However, the biggest problem is not their frequency, but the inability to prove they are false.
Most sexual abuse allegations rely on one person’s word against another. Many people believe that no one would lie about sexual violence. This is particularly true when it comes to sex crimes against children. People refuse to believe a child would lie about abuse or could be coached into lying. Even when the child’s story makes no sense or contradicts available evidence, juries will still convict the accused.
A recent article by Alan Prendergast highlights a particular case:
In 2002 an Arapahoe County jury found [Charles Farrar] guilty of multiple counts of sexual assault on a child after hearing the horrific story told by his oldest stepdaughter, Sacha. She testified that Farrar, often assisted by her own mother, had subjected her to more than a hundred instances of molestation, rape and sexual abuse from the age of eleven until she was fifteen. Judge John P. Leopold sentenced Farrar to 145 years to life — the kind of time usually reserved for serial killers, terrorists or Bernie Madoff. […] Shortly after Farrar’s trial, prosecutors dropped similar charges against Sacha’s mother, Debbie, because Sacha refused to testify against her. A few months later, after Sacha turned eighteen, she went back to court and told a very different story.
She said that she’d lied, that she’d fabricated the allegations against Debbie and Charles so she could live with her grandparents in Oklahoma. That she’d made fools out of the cops, the social workers, the prosecutors, who not only swallowed her preposterous tale, but coached her on how to tell it better on the stand. And when she tried to call the whole thing off, two caseworkers and a prosecutor pressured her into sticking to her story and ignored her assertions that it wasn’t true.
The article goes on to detail the mess Sacha caused. It appears that Sacha was a troubled child prone to misbehaving and lying. In an effort to get away from her mother and avoid telling her mother about her pregnancy (she later discovered she was not pregnant), the girl claimed Farrar abused her. Her allegations were far from tame. Sacha claimed that her mother would suck Farrar’s semen out of her vagina. She claimed that Farrar prostituted her to his friends. She claimed that he made “kink video” of the abuse. Yet police found no evidence supporting the claims.
Worse, the police did not interview any of Farrar’s friends, any of Sacha’s boyfriends, or the other children and adults in the home. According to the article, the home was under renovation at the time the abused supposedly occurred. There was no door on Sacha’s room, and she and the other children constantly hung out together. If anyone would know about abuse it would be the children and the two other adults in the home, yet the police never questioned them.
Instead, the other children were placed in foster care where, in one of the most brutal twists of irony, one of Sacha’s brothers was raped by a teen with a prior history of sex crimes. However, all anyone did was move the offending boy to another home. No charges were filed.
All this based on one person’s accusations, accusations that apparently no one tried to verify.
The situation led to a bizarre prosecutorial tactic:
Colorado’s victim-rights laws prohibit subjecting alleged victims to a polygraph test. But few questions were asked of Sacha after her initial interview with police. She repeated the story a week later, in a videotaped interview at the SunGate child-advocacy center, explaining that she was unable to provide specific dates of the assaults because it was all “one long nightmare.” She had no further conversations with police or prosecutors until shortly before Farrar’s trial, two years later. This peculiar lack of followup would later be explained in court as a desire, on the part of the investigators, not to “retraumatize” the victim.
While I am not versed in prosecutorial tactics, this is the first I have ever heard of a prosecutor deliberately avoiding contact with a witness until trial. It seems idiotic to do that, if for no other reason than failing to keep the witness informed about state of the case.
The jury convicted Farrar despite not believing aspects of Sacha’s story. The prosecutors readied to take Sacha’s mother to trial, but they hit a road bump when Sacha refused to testify. The state dropped the charges against Sacha’s mother, but once Sacha turned eighteen she recanted her prior accusations against Farrar while accusing the state of prosecutorial misconduct:
According to Sacha, she’d told several people that the story wasn’t true even before Farrar’s trial. She’d asked one of her caseworkers what would happen if she’d made it all up — and never heard back from her. Another told her she would likely be committed to an institution. Her therapist, she added, also dismissed her efforts to recant to her.
She said she tried to tell Schober it was all a lie the morning that the trial started — the first time the two had actually met in person. Schober, she claimed, replied that any change in her story would lead to a mistrial and that Sacha might be deemed mentally unstable and locked up.
The state rigorously defended against the accusations, ironically stating the same things that Farrar did during his defense: they had limited contact with Sacha. The special prosecutor also put on evidence turned against him. The claim about Sacha’s mother buying her a car in exchange for recanting could not be proven, and the ex-boyfriend he summoned testified that Sacha lied about being pregnant and threatened to make false accusations against him.
All of this supported the defense’s position that Farrar should get a retrial, yet the judge disagreed. Despite finding that Sacha had clear credibility problems, the judge ruled against a new trial. That ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.
Farrar still remains in prison for a crime he and the apparent victim claims never happened. The courts refuse to acknowledge Sasha’s recantation even though the courts believe she is prone to lying. There is no evidence supporting any of her accusations, yet plenty of evidence that the state made no real effort to investigate the case. A likely innocent man will spend the rest of his life in prison while his children have had their lives destroyed.
This is the power of a lie. There is no telling how many Farrars there are in prison. There is no telling how many men and boys paid the price for a crime that never happened. This is not to say that people should not believe children who say they were abused. It simply that we ought to check, double check, and triple check because no other crime carries the stigma that a sex crime against a child does. We need to be right on this because if we are wrong the innocent have little recourse to prove their innocence.