REVERSAL OF MISFORTUNE

JAMES MCPHEETERS BEAT A MOLESTATION RAP, BUT WAS SENTENCED TO 561 YEARS FOR POSSESSING CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. AN APPELLATE COURT SAYS HE DESERVES A NEW TRIAL.

Her stepfather--call him George--also worked with McPheeters at the Pornorama, but Karen had known McPheeters for much longer.

McPheeters, Karen claimed, had been best friends with her real father--until the day McPheeters was first accused of molesting Karen, who was then 3 or 4. Karen's mother corroborated her testimony.

McPheeters was exiled from the family. But years later, he showed up again and picked up where he left off and molested Karen on a regular basis. Karen claimed that McPheeters lost interest in her sexually when she reached puberty, but in police reports, she claimed that McPheeters would lend her out to friends who wanted to have sex with her. In 1988, when Karen was 15, she finally pressed charges against McPheeters--only to recant. In the eyes of police and prosecutors, this forever tainted their chances of getting a conviction against McPheeters. When Karen first pressed charges, again according to police reports, her mother's sister came forward and said that she, too, had been molested by McPheeters when she was a child. McPheeters also had allegedly turned his attention to Karen's younger brother and stepbrother.

The latter of the two, a pudgy little 9-year-old, testified against McPheeters in the 1993 pornography trial. He smilingly detailed how McPheeters had fondled him when he was 4; defense attorney Rivkind quickly discredited the boy by asking him how he knew he was 4 years old when the incident occurred.

"I heard my mom telling me I was 4," he cheerily responded.
He had been the most convincing witness. Steve and George claimed to have held conversations with McPheeters about sex with children. But they had still allowed him access to their families, and then acted outraged when McPheeters allegedly acted on his impulses.

McPheeters was the least credible of all. When he took the stand against his attorney's will, he repeated some damning remarks about the molestation of the 5-year-old for which he had been acquitted.

"I believe you testified, [the boy] had his leg around you and was trying to thrust his penis in your mouth," prosecutor Reckart asked of him. "Is that correct?"
McPheeters answered, "If I am not mistaken, I testified that he tried to put his leg over my shoulder to climb up on me."

Somehow, the jury had not been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and McPheeters beat the rap.

Shortly after McPheeters was arrested for the molestation of the boy, but long before he went to court, Steve, the boy's grandfather, and Amy, the boy's mother, decided to "clean out" McPheeters' room. Steve told the court that he wanted to give the room to his grandson, but why he imagined the boy would want to live in the lair of his predator is unfathomable. Hearing the story, it smacked of a setup, as if the searchers knew exactly what they were looking for.

In the room's closet, they found briefcases and boxes full of sex toys and videos and magazines. The movies on the videos had been copied so many times they were blurred and nearly impossible to make out, but they filled the TV screen with images of private parts being poked and prodded like so much raw meat.

The magazines were even older than the copies of Newsweek and People in the jury room. McPheeters claimed he had purchased them in the 1970s, which was before legislators had the common sense to make them illegal. They had foolish names like Chicken Supreme and Joy Boys. Some purported to be treatises on nudism--tousle-haired youngsters frolicking alongside their naked parents. Others obsessed about teenage boys with erections. Most were filled with pathetic photographs of 4- to 9-year-olds pouting alluringly and thrusting their pelvises toward the camera.

As a father, some pictures filled me with pure rage: an intensely disturbing and hauntingly unforgettable picture of a beautiful girl who couldn't have been older than 8. She smiled innocently for the photographer--while impaled on the penis of a large and hairy man.

McPheeters claimed that he had bought the magazines as investments, as if he were some kind of perverted stamp collector, and he also claimed that he had sold them to Steve sometime back.

But of all the players, only McPheeters' prints turned up on the materials, except for one, which bore Steve's thumb- and fingerprint on the spine, as if he had picked it up and held it at arm's length like the dirty laundry it was.

I later learned from police records that detectives had also found in McPheeters' room a copy of a book about beating child-molestation charges. The judge had not allowed it as evidence.

The jury consisted of 12 people who were virtual strangers. Each day as we left the jury box, we were admonished not to talk about the case when it was the only thing we held in common.

But when we retired to the jury room for deliberation, we exploded in animated discussion that lasted more than an hour and a half--no argument, really, but rather an outpouring of disbelief at the two weeks we had just gone through.

I had wondered all along whether McPheeters was being tried on the pornography charges or if he was being retried on the molestation case. Many of the other jurors felt the same, wondering why the judge had allowed as much testimony about the earlier incidents as she had, especially since McPheeters had been acquitted.

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