A Phallacy

The 1992 case of the little boy and the big, bad hospital captivated the community and Arizona legislators. Readers who lived in the Valley at that time may recall the page-one brouhaha:

In a series of stories, the Arizona Republic detailed Phoenix Memorial Hospital's use of a device called a penile plethysmograph on juvenile sex offenders as young as 10. Dubbed the "peter meter," the controversial device is said to gauge a male's sexual response to photographs of naked and clothed people of both sexes and all ages.

The series' keynote story focused on a boy, then 11, whom we'll call "Sam." In graphic detail, Sam's outraged mother, LaWanda Copeland--her name is different from her son's--regaled the daily with examples of alleged horrors at the hospital's sex-offender treatment and assessment program.

The Republic described how Sam had been tested with the plethysmograph during a risk assessment ordered by a Juvenile Court judge. (The judge ordered the assessment after Sam had sexually molested two boys at a Valley foster home.)

With the state's largest daily on its side, Copeland and other members of the advocacy group VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) became even more shrill. But neither the stories nor VOCAL mentioned that child-protection officials had taken Sam from Copeland after she told a counselor that she had sexually molested the boy repeatedly. A Juvenile Court judge said Copeland's "long history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse" contributed to her son's own violent, predatory behavior.

Regardless, the Republic's one-sided attacks on Phoenix Memorial's program, county prosecutors and judges led to fiery hearings at the Arizona Legislature. Lawmakers heard a litany of complaints about Phoenix Memorial from Copeland and other members of VOCAL. The American Civil Liberties Union chimed in on behalf of the boy.

The spate of bad publicity led to the closing of Phoenix Memorial's sex-offender treatment program, which at the time was the only inpatient facility in Arizona for high-risk juveniles.

"I've been dubbed a child abuser, an evildoer," the program's director, Bob Emerick, lamented at the time ("Left to His Own Devices," December 30, 1992).

"If I had read those stories, I probably would have said the same thing. But we were providing a difficult service to try to deal with the worst of the worst juvenile sex deviants. I think it was a matter of guilt by newspaper."

At that time, Judge Ronald Reinstein, presiding judge of the Superior Court's criminal division, summed up the debacle bluntly:

"A group called VOCAL, whose family members or themselves have been in trouble for committing sex crimes and don't like it, call a newspaper with a supposed big story. The paper prints up a series of incomplete, sensational news stories that get a few legislators riled up. The headlines might as well have read, 'Hospital Torturing Children!' The ball gets rolling and doesn't stop."

The ball continued to roll in 1994, when LaWanda Copeland and Sam sued the hospital and several employees, including Emerick. Phoenix attorney Robert Hirschfeld filed the suit, which alleged, in part, that Phoenix Memorial employees had "assaulted" young Sam by subjecting him to the controversial sexual-arousal testing.

The pleadings also alleged that Sam wrongly had been exposed "to vile pornography that would result in a mandatory prison sentence if possessed by any of the attorneys in this case."

Shortly after initiating the lawsuit, Hirschfeld faced his own, unrelated problems with the Arizona Supreme Court, and was suspended from the practice of law. (He now is said to be operating a document-preparation service.)

Attorneys Joel Robbins and Nick Hentoff took over the case, which dragged on in obscurity until last month. Then, Superior Court Judge Sherry Hutt dismissed Copeland's lawsuit with prejudice--it cannot be refiled.

"The court finds that the specific treatment which [Sam] underwent at Phoenix Memorial was ordered by the court as an appropriate prescription," Hutt wrote in terminating the suit.

The only consolation for Copeland is that Phoenix Memorial has agreed to pay its own substantial costs of defending itself and its employees.

"The case was extremely difficult," says plaintiff's attorney Hentoff. ". . . The judge said Phoenix Memorial and its people had legal immunity because the court had ordered them to assess the boy. That was the end of it, right there."

The protracted lawsuit's end is of some consolation to Emerick, perhaps the key defendant in the case.

"At least I won't have the, quote, pending lawsuit on my credit reports anymore," says Emerick, "but I really have yet to resolve the public humiliation that came about because of the Republic stories and the rest of what happened.

"I was pretty effectively characterized as worse than the clients that I have worked with for my entire career [16 years]. As an effect, I was a professional and social hermit for almost three years after all this went down."

Emerick recalls the death threats against him and his then-wife, a Maricopa County sex-crimes prosecutor. And he recalls the Republic photographer who lurked behind a trash bin near his Glendale home, waiting to snap a photograph.

After the Phoenix Memorial program was closed, he moved to Canada without his family to run a program for Indian sex offenders. He returned to the Valley a few years ago, but his marriage faltered. Currently, he conducts group counseling for offenders and writes manuals about treating sexual deviants and other subjects.

In a 1991 interview, LaWanda Copeland told New Times she could understand her son's bitter feelings toward her.

"They say [Sam] is ready to, what's that word, confront me now," she said. "He's real angry. Well, I'm ready. Let him confront me. All I want is my son back."

She got her wish. According to one of Copeland's attorneys, Sam, now 16, has been living with his mother for several years.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin