Reno Reconsidered (Part B)

The evidence was not there. The kids' stories were outrageous beyond belief. But that didn't stop Janet Reno from trying to destroy Bobby Fijnje.

The cases weren't just related thematically. "Without the hysteria surrounding Country Walk, without the sensitization of the community, Fijnje wouldn't have developed into the juggernaut it did," notes University of Utah psychologist Raskin, who was hired by Fijnje's attorney as an expert witness. "The geography of the case is absolutely creepy. Most of the core parents, including the first accuser, lived in Country Walk, or nearby in South Dade. These parents had regular contact with Country Walk parents. The place was a hothouse for accusations."

As in Country Walk, parents in the Fijnje case quickly organized themselves into a close-knit network. They not only talked at weekly prayer groups, but at meetings of Justice for Sex Abused Children, the group formed by Country Walk parents.

In turn, Raskin says, Old Cutler parents were quick to internalize the lessons of Country Walk: that children don't lie and that ritual abuse does occur, even if there are no witnesses and no physical evidence.

Raskin says the guiding principle of "therapy" in the Fijnje case was that abuse had in fact occurred, and that alleged victims needed to cure themselves by confiding -- or conjuring -- their dark secret.

"When you listen to some of the interviews, what you see is actually coercive," seconds Stephen Ceci, a Cornell University professor of psychology who specializes in child-interviewing techniques. "Again and again children are told that they must talk about Fijnje's abuse. Therapists ignore denials and offer an endless litany of rewards if the child will disclose.

"Coming out of Country Walk there was this confusion between taking a child seriously versus believing everything they say," adds Ceci, an unpaid expert who testified for the defense in the Fijnje case. "What you find in these settings, where passions run high, is a tendency to lapse into what we call confirmatory bias. That is, you begin looking for evidence that abuse has occurred, and ignoring facts that contradict your hypothesis."

Ceci, whose reputation is such that the prosecution initially listed him as a potential witness, insists that Janet Reno's office exhibited this bias. Disregarding the paucity of solid evidence, prosecutors concentrated on the similarities in children's allegations as evidence of Fijnje's guilt, ignoring another obvious explanation: that constant interaction among the alleged victims' families might account for the overlap. The dynamic was at play in a broader sense, since the motifs in the Fijnje case were typical of alleged ritual-abuse cases all over the country. Was this because Fijnje was party to a far-roaming satanic conspiracy? Or because the victims' parents -- who had learned about signs of the occult from their "satanic investigator" -- had planted these motifs in their kids' minds through regular quizzing?

As the tales of abuse grew more preposterous, it became obvious that the children were, at times, outright fantasizing. Apparently this did not prompt prosecutors to question the credibility of their young witnesses. Instead, Ceci says, they fell back on a convenient, and questionable, form of logic: Something must have happened at that church nursery school or all these kids wouldn't be telling such crazy stories.

But prosecutors were forced to sharpen the blurry line between criminal reality and a child's make-believe as they prepared for trial. Their solution was to severely limit the case. While the state insisted that Fijnje had abused more than a dozen children over two and a half years, he was formally charged with just eight sex crimes against three girls. By order of Judge Norman Gerstein, the jury was allowed to hear their accusations only. Thus jurors never heard the far-fetched claims of Fijnje's other alleged victims. In fact, prosecutors dropped one of the three victims on the eve of the trial. This maneuver saved them from trying to explain the girl's more florid claims -- namely, that she had seen a woman turn into a witch and fly, and had dug up a grave with Fijnje out of which horror-movie villain Freddy Krueger crawled.

To spare alleged victims further trauma, Gerstein forbade the defense from interviewing them at all -- an odd ruling considering the insistent questioning they faced from their own private therapists.

The state's concerted effort to strike a plea bargain with the defendant marked another glaring inconsistency. "On the one hand, they tried this kid as an adult, knowing he could have been sent to prison for the rest of his life," Ceci observes. "At the same time, they were ready to give him three years in a state mental facility, with no criminal record. It didn't make sense. If he was the demon they made him out to be, why were they so desperate for him to bargain?"

Ceci himself was asked by prosecutors to explain the state's plea offer to the Fijnje family. He remembers sitting in a jury deliberation room making his pitch. "I said, 'Please, it's not worth the chance that even one count comes back guilty.' But Bobby's dad was determined not to plea. He pounded his fist on the table. 'This is harassment,' he said. 'My son has done nothing!'"

Psychologist Raskin insists this refusal to plea marked the crucial difference between the Fijnje and Country Walk cases: "They thought they'd offer Bobby a deal he couldn't refuse. But they were not able to do to him what they did to Ileana Fuster."

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