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Indictment (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

ray children child abuse

Principal social theme: child abuse

HBO. PG-13 rating. Featuring: James Woods, Mercedes Ruehl, Sada Thompson, Henry Thomas, Shirley Knight, Mark Blum, Alison Elliott, Chelsea Field, Joe Urla, Scott Waara, Valerie Wildman, Roberta Bassin, Dennis Burkley, Richard Bradford, Miriam Flynn, James Cromwell, Gabrielle Boni, Lolita Davidovich. Written by Abby Mann and Myra Mann. Cinematography by Rodrigo Garcia. Edited by Richard A. Harris. Music by Peter Rodgers Melnick. Produced by Diana Pokorny and Oliver Stone (executive). Directed by Mick Jackson. Color. 129 minutes.

Overview

Indictment is a meticulous and passionate docudrama based on the controversial McMartin case, a ten-year ordeal focusing on the issue of child abuse. The prosecution has been called the twentieth-century equivalent of the Salem witch trials and had wide-ranging ramifications on society and law enforcement. A family who operated a preschool were imprisoned and popularly denounced in the media on the flimsiest evidence extracted from young children by a social worker with an agenda. Indictment was one of the most successful television films of the 1990s, winning numerous awards from the Director’s Guild, the Golden Globes, as well as the Emmy as the best television film of 1995.

Synopsis

A single complaint of child abuse is made on August 12, 1983, by Judy Johnson (Roberta Bassin) against the operators of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. In February of the following year, the owners and teachers of the schools are arrested, including seventy-six-year-old Virginia McMartin (Sada Thompson). The main targets are Virginia’s daughter Peggy Buckey (Shirley Knight) and her children, Ray (Henry Thomas) and Peggy Ann (Alison Elliott), all teachers at the school. Three other teachers, elderly women, were also indicted. Many children were questioned and all denied any abuse. The district attorney then referred them to child therapist Kee McFarlane (Lolita Davidovich), who claimed they all revealed gross sexual misconduct under her intense examination using puppets and unclothed, anatomically correct dolls. Danny Davis is assigned to defend the accused molesters. The prosecutor in the case, Leal Rubin (Mercedes Ruehl), is passionately committed to pushing this case to the limit. In an unprecedented move, she files more than four hundred separate charges against the accused, and bail is denied to Peggy, Ray, and Peggy Ann. As the prosecutors prepare their case, Rubin’s co-counsels, Glenn Stevens (Joe Urla) and Christine Johnson (Chelsea Field), become increasingly doubtful of the main evidence, the tapes of McFarlane interviewing the children. It becomes increasingly apparent to them that she is putting words in the children’s mouths, rewarding them when they say they have been molested, but calling them stupid if they deny it. No independent doctor will testify that there is medical evidence of abuse. No pornographic photos, a key element from McFarlane’s tapes, were ever discovered. Finally, some of the children’s stories become too fantastical, referring to horses decapitated by Ray and trips on airplanes or visits to the local church where Satanists forced them to drink blood. Meanwhile, a mood of general hysteria starts to break out in southern California, and cases start appearing at virtually every daycare center and preschool. Serious investigation discovers that almost all these cases are without merit, and the children recant.

Many months pass and DA Rubin continues to block attempts by Davis to get more information. He finally is allowed to view McFarlane’s tapes, but only in the courtroom under supervision. He is astonished by the degree to which the children are manipulated by the unscrupulous therapist. The preliminary hearing is a fiasco. Finally, Stevens is called by Judy Johnson, who now claims someone is sexually molesting her dog. The lawyer learns that she is mentally unstable. The attorney has had enough, leaks his reservations to the press, and resigns. In reaction to this, in January 1986, head DA Ira Reiner (Richard Bradford) decides to drop the charges against most of the defendants, except for Ray Buckey and his mother. Public reaction, however, is furious that these five defendants were set free. It is then discovered that Wayne Satz (Mark Blum), the TV reporter leading the media vendetta against the McMartins is actually the live-in boyfriend of therapist Kee McFarlane. This conflict of interest is pummeled by the rest of the media. When Davis learns about Judy Johnson’s mental instability, he moves for a mistrial because the information was never passed on to him. The judge criticizes the prosecution, but allows the trial to continue. Johnson dies of an alcohol overdose shortly afterward. Prosecutor Rubin then decides to rely on the testimony of George Freeman (Dennis Burkley), a perjurer and convicted child molester, who claims that Ray Buckey confessed to him while in prison. Davis discredits Freeman in his cross-examination. Davis also manages to discredit much of McFarlane’s testimony by playing her tapes interrogating the children. The judge finally decides to grant Ray Buckey bail, and he is released to Davis’s custody after five years in prison. Ray has to undergo a grueling cross-examination by Rubin when he takes the stand to proclaim his innocence. She fails to shake his story. The trial concludes, and the jury announces its verdict in January 1990. Peggy Buckey is cleared of all charges. Ray is cleared of more than forty charges, but the jury remains deadlocked on thirteen other counts. The prosecution decides to retry him on these counts, although DA Ira Reiner dismisses Rubin from the case. Martinez, her replacement, offers Ray a deal, no jail time if he pleads “no contest” to a single charge, but he refuses. The prosecution again fails to obtain a conviction, and the case is dropped. Now free, the McMartins struggle to salvage their lives, upset that they can never fully escape the taint of the charges. Ray Buckey decides to pursue the study of law.

Critique

The McMartin trial remains one of the most inflammatory and controversial cases in American history. Indictment tells the story in spellbinding fashion, due in large part to the literate script (based largely on the actual court transcripts) and the use of authentic television clips of news luminaries such as as Geraldo Rivera, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, and Peter Jennings, featuring their actual on-air comments about the case. This provides a striking air of verisimilitude. It also is an indictment of the rush to judgment by the media. The entire cast, particularly Shirley Knight and Henry Thomas, deliver unforgettable performances. James Woods walks a fine line in his part, gradually transforming the personality of Danny Davis from a heartless sleazeball to a fervent advocate of justice. Joe Urla, as Glenn Stevens, is likewise memorable as the state attorney who puts his career at risk rather than continue an unjust prosecution.

Indictment is one of the most important films on the topic of child abuse, revealing much about the psychological damage that can be inflicted on the innocent. It would have been valuable to contrast how young children who were actually abused would have reacted in contrast to those who were coerced into making untrue accusations. In this case, it was actually the therapist who abused the children, intimidating them and molding them into supporting her own agenda of self-aggrandizement. The script also contained an important reference that independent psychiatrists rejected both McFarlane’s techniques and conclusions. Without doubt, Indictment would provide abundant material for discussing the actual trauma of child abuse and how it can be accurately detected.

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