The Case from Hell Part 6
The moment of truth had arrived, and attorney Karen Gievers was losing her grip. Her voice was cracking. Her eyes kept misting over. Much to the astonishment of lawyers and laymen alike, her questions were barely coherent. And those that did make sense were being summarily overruled by the judge. In this, the final week of a bruising month-long hearing to determine the fate of four young children, Gievers's customary command of the courtroom was crumbling.
The Nogues case had begun in September 1989, when fifteen-year-old Aimee Nogues accused her parents, Kendall physicians Andres and Lisette, of abuse. The state immediately removed the seven minor Nogues children and placed them with their older sister, Michelle Porras, and her husband Rick. Aimee soon admitted the allegations were not true and were concocted at Michelle's bidding, but state investigators and a juvenile court judge believed Aimee's claims, and prohibited the Nogueses from any contact with their children.
Since then Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) officials, two police teams, and a court-appointed national child abuse expert have investigated the case and concluded that the Nogueses were innocent. More disturbing, they had warned that the four youngest Nogues children were at risk in the home of Michelle Porras, who had a history of psychological problems and a deep-seated animosity toward her mother. Child advocates, led by guardian ad litem June Shaw, the children's representative in court, had opposed all efforts to reunite the family and clung to their original theory -- that the Nogueses were abusers. One police detective had become so infuriated by efforts to thwart her investigation that she initiated a criminal investigation against Shaw and other case workers.
In July 1991, Gievers volunteered to represent Shaw. But her attention gradually shifted to the children. In their name, she pressed for all ties to be severed with the parents. Juvenile Court Judge Ralph Person, the sixth judge to inherit the so-called Case from Hell, had pledged to settle the matter once and for all, either by reuniting the family or setting the stage for permanent separation. Gievers, already famous for suing the state on behalf of neglected foster children, now faced another high-profile opportunity to defend children's rights.
But the proceeding, which ran from April 12 to May 10, instead cast light on a system as dysfunctional as the families it sought to mend. In hour after hour of unassailable testimony, police and child abuse experts detailed how advocates ignored evidence of abuse in the Porras home, and helped manufacture the case against the Nogueses. Gievers's own witnesses had proved largely ineffectual.
At a juncture in her career when she could least afford a challenge to her competency, when she was edging toward the stage of statewide politics as a candidate for insurance commissioner, Gievers's advocacy had begun to look like misguided fanaticism.
Then, on May 4, as the most grueling day of the hearing wore down, even the judge had begun scolding her. The indignity was too much to bear. "I have been defamed publicly," Gievers lamented. Falsely accused. Slandered. "I am just trying to do everything I can to protect what's left of my professional integrity." Her quavering tone left little doubt: Karen Gievers, tough advocate for the protection of children, past president of the Dade County Bar Association, and a litigator celebrated for her clinical demeanor, appeared to be disintegrating.
Legal Armageddon is now over. Two weeks ago Judge Person issued a carefully worded order calling for the four youngest Nogues children to be returned to their parents -- who have not seen them since November 1989 -- after a period of readjustment and therapy. "The efforts to reunify this family," the judge declared, "must equal or exceed those used to keep them apart."
Reconciliation will not come easily. In three and a half years, the Nogues affair has become one of the most expensive and tortuous custody battles in U.S. history. Despite Person's early efforts to limit the scope of the hearing, it soon became clear that virtually every rancorous aspect of the case was going to be exhumed. In dramatic fashion.
Det. Ellen Christopher, the Metro-Dade sexual battery officer who had investigated Aimee's original claims, recounted that she had quickly grown to doubt the girl's vague and contradictory allegations. She also related how guardians ad litem June Shaw and Robin Greene had reacted when she questioned Aimee's credibility: by withholding vital evidence and denying her access to Aimee.
Christopher, who briefly considered arresting June Shaw, instead filed a complaint with the Dade State Attorney's Office in 1990. Janet Reno declined to investigate, citing a conflict of interest. But last year prosecutors in Fort Pierce launched a criminal investigation whose targets include Shaw, Greene, and HRS investigator Shelly Snodgrass. (The inquiry continues.)
Christopher also discussed a second investigation, involving the youngest Nogues children. Just six weeks after they had been moved to the home of their sister, Michelle Porras, one of them, a five-year-old girl, was examined at Jackson Hospital's Rape Treatment Center and found to have vaginal redness indicating a recent trauma. Case workers ignored this ominous finding and the children stayed with the Porrases.
The four youngest children, at least. The older three -- Javier, Jeanette, and Aimee -- soon ran away and eventually returned to their parents' home. Despite the stories they told of Rick's violence and Michelle's psychological manipulation, claims reiterated under oath during the recent court hearing, HRS licensed the couple as foster parents. In 1990 court-appointed psychologist Sim centsn Miranda evaluated the four youngest children and warned that they were growing alienated from their parents. HRS investigators cautioned in November 1991 that the youngsters might, like Aimee, lodge false accusations against their parents. A few weeks later, in fact, the allegations began.
In January 1992, all sides agreed to bring in child abuse expert Dr. Diane Schetky to resolve the Nogues case. She, along with police, quickly determined the tales of abuse were false. "I believe we're dealing with parental alienation brought about by the Porrases, HRS, and the Guardian program," Schetky stated at Person's hearing. "Professionals became overinvolved and had a vested interest in confirming incest, to the point where they coached the children and would not hear Aimee's recantation." Schetky, who earlier had urged reunification, chided state officials for ignoring her recommendation. She went on to characterize Michelle Nogues as "a cunning, conniving woman."
Gievers argued that removing the children from Michelle would amount to punishing them. "They've been punished already by being removed from home," Schetky reminded her.
"And so you want to inflict further punishment," Gievers demanded.
"Sometimes that's the only way to go to undo a wrong."
"Two wrongs don't make a right, do they, doctor?"
"No. But by leaving them there, you're sanctioning Michelle's brainwashing job."
Lisette Nogues, a strong-willed mother of nine who quit a lucrative neurology practice in the battle to regain her children, spent a day on the stand excoriating the officials who had fractured her family. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the case, and sharp tongue, confounded Gievers. Even the legal commentator for Court TV, which would later broadcast excerpts from the hearing, criticized Gievers for her ineffective cross-examination.
Gievers's interrogation of Sgt. Dave Simmons likewise backfired. A supervisor in Metro-Dade's child exploitation unit, Simmons had entered the case in late 1991 to investigate new claims by the four youngest Nogues children that their parents had once abused them. For seven months he and two subordinates reviewed documents and interviewed witnesses before concluding that these claims were fabricated, probably with the encouragement of Michelle Porras. Like Det. Ellen Christopher, Simmons had issued repeated warnings about the dangers in the Porras home.
Gievers avoided querying him about his investigation. Instead she asked him questions unrelated to his role in the case but specifically designed to cast aspersions on the Nogues family. For example: "Did you investigate the incident involving Javier Nogues and the gun that he stole or was given by some drug dealers, which was used in a shooting of a minor child?"
Later she asked Simmons whether he had ever discussed with Lisette Nogues the state's offers to return her children. Simmons's soft-spoken response cut to the heart of the Case from Hell. "I never really discussed [that] with her," he testified. "I do know that both parents were deeply concerned about the pressure that was being exerted on them, in light of their professed innocence, to admit they're guilty of something that they did not do; and for Dr. Andres Nogues to submit himself to mentally disordered sex offender treatment with known, convicted sex offenders and rapists, and for Dr. Lisette Nogues to undergo therapy, counseling, and other such treatment, again with the presumption of guilt attached to it. And neither was prepared or willing to accept that. It's an unfortunate Catch-22 in this system that I've learned in this case A that if you want your kids back, you have to admit guilt whether you did it or you didn't do it. But these are two physicians, Ms. Gievers, two doctors, respected doctors, who did nothing wrong criminally in this case. And for the state to impose on them pressure to admit guilt for crimes they did not commit is unconscionable. I do not blame them for taking the stand that they have."
"Even though it has resulted in the four children that I represent not being able to be with the parents for three and a half years?" Gievers countered.
"Even though the parents have not been able to see their children, to which they are entitled, I do not blame them for not admitting guilt to something they did not do," Simmons asserted.
Michelle Nogues Porras entered the courtroom draped in white --long white dress, white stockings, white pumps. At her bosom she clutched her infant son. Her May 3 appearance in court was only the second time she had taken the witness stand since she had been entrusted with her younger siblings in 1989. Establishing Michelle as a loving, responsible foster parent was as crucial to Karen Gievers's case as vilifying Lisette Nogues. Her testimony, however, did little to advance that agenda.
Other witnesses had already noted Porras's documented history of psychiatric problems, including an evaluation describing her as sociopathic. As a witness, she continually evaded questions about her own conduct in the case, and contradicted other witnesses. Her memory appeared suspiciously faulty.
"Isn't it true that on one of the times that Andres was transported from the Dade County Jail to the court house in shackles and chains, you brought the children to see that?" asked Nogues attorney Jesus Bujan.
"I have no idea where you get your information. No," Porras answered.
"I was present!" Bujan exclaimed.
Even more revealing was the cross-examination by Morton Lightner, the mild-mannered co-counsel for HRS. Unlike earlier HRS efforts to portray Michelle Porras as a noble foster parent, Lightner pursued a line of inquiry that raised questions about her mental stability. "Have you ever written a poem in which you discussed not knowing the truth from a lie?" Lightner asked.
"I don't remember what I've written in my poems," Porras replied.
In fact, Porras had written such a poem in 1987, after admitting that she falsely accused Andres, her stepfather, of sexual abuse -- a confession she made only after she flunked a polygraph test and Andres passed. Lisette Nogues had saved the poem, and now, as Lightner questioned Porras, she pulled it from the bulging file she lugged to court each day. She showed it to Bujan, who passed it to Lightner.
Lightner handed the poem to a visibly trembling Porras and asked her to read it aloud. "The wind no longer blows swiftly, no longer steady in mind," she recited, in part. "Truth and reality have said goodbye, lost in a world of fantasy, yet happy and weepfully blind."
Rick Porras fared no better. Three times in the space of five minutes he provided answers that contradicted documents in evidence. Like his wife, he frequently claimed to have forgotten incidents -- such as a violent confrontation with Javier Nogues -- that were revealing of his character.
Bujan described a psychological profile administered when Porras unsuccessfully applied for a job with the Metro-Dade Police Department. The report noted that Porras "may be willing to distort facts or overly deny personal faults when advantageous. However, this person's efforts appear naive and lacking in sophistication."
Though state law requires official child advocates to work toward family reunification, the testimony of guardians June Shaw and Robin Greene illustrated the opposite. Shaw's case notes reflected both an unwavering contempt for the Nogueses and an apparent effort to silence witnesses who might have exonerated them. Shaw assured Judge Person that she favored reunification, but conceded minutes later that she had told police the children would be returned to their parents "over my dead body."
Greene admitted that she, too, had withheld evidence that would have aided Andres and Lisette Nogues, specifically that Aimee claimed to have had sex with a 28-year-old man when she was fifteen. Greene also recalled how she had responded to Aimee's recantation --by telling the confused teen that she could be charged with perjury.
Robert Kelly, therapist to the four youngest Nogueses, acknowledged that he told one of the children that she had in fact been abused by her father. That was why she mistrusted men, he explained to the nine-year-old. As evidence of this abuse, Kelly noted that the girl's hymen was torn -- a claim contradicted by medical records Kelly had never examined.
The witnesses Gievers called to buttress her case sometimes did more harm than good. Mental health counselor Joanne Minea, for instance, explained that Aimee had been recanting within weeks of her allegation, testimony that had never been presented in court.
Two of the children's former school counselors admitted that an HRS case worker had driven two of the younger Nogues children to see them just a week before the counselors were called as witnesses by Gievers. Though the counselors insisted the children had been dropped off merely to visit, Bujan quickly raised the specter of witness tampering. "Wasn't it strange?" he asked one of these counselors. "You hadn't seen them in months, and now in the middle of the trial, the two children were being driven from the north end of the county to the southern end to see you?"
Judge Person was likewise unsettled. "I had [an HRS case worker] who came in here and said she does not believe reunification is in the best interest of these children. And this person, for whatever reason, has been taking the children down to see someone that they haven't seen in over a year. And I was curious to find out why that happened."
With little hard evidence, Gievers at times resorted to misrepresention. She declared that her clients had "thrived" in the Porras home. Records showed the children's school work had plummeted. She claimed the State Attorney's Office had investigated the alleged abuse of the youngest Nogueses. The State Attorney has never investigated that allegation.
At other times -- as when she inexplicably grilled twenty-year-old Javier Nogues about how he has been affected by his diminutive stature -- Gievers appeared determined to simply bully unfriendly witnesses. She reserved her most hectoring tone, however, for the media.
On April 26 Gievers bustled into court, fuming. The media had struck again. Exploiting tragedy. Distorting truth. Damaging the children. The previous night Channel 6 (WCIX-TV) had broadcast the first in a series of reports about the case, and included shots of the youngest Nogues children.
Gievers announced that the children had been so traumatized by the segment -- which aired midway through the 11:00 p.m. news broadcast -- that they had to be rushed to a therapist. She demanded that Judge Person schedule an emergency hearing to prevent the station from airing any more footage of her clients. That afternoon Channel 6 reporter Susan Candiotti and producer Marcia Vivancos were summoned to court. Their lawyer, Janet Mund, informed the judge that the station would not consider altering the series. The case, Mund noted, had been in the headlines for more than three years.
According to Gievers, Candiotti and Vivancos had promised not to show the children's faces or use their names. Mund informed Person that this claim was false and that her clients -- who were shaking their heads in disbelief -- would be happy to testify under oath. Judge Person did not feel it necessary. Though furious that the children had been identified on television, the judge acknowledged he had no authority to block the station.
Gievers rose again and wheeled around to face Candiotti. In a supplicating voice, she pleaded with the reporter not to damage the children any further, and she offered to get down on her knees right there in court and beg if necessary. Mund was taken aback by the display and told Person that Gievers had become too emotional for the discussion to continue. (Ten-year-old Daniel Nogues contradicted Gievers's assertions during an interview with an HRS social worker concerning Candiotti's reports. "He made a statement to me that said a lot," the social worker later recalled on the stand. "He made a comment that [his] mom must love him. Why [else] is she spending so much time trying to get him back?")
But Gievers's hostile reaction was predictable. Ever since she entered the case she had routinely lashed out at the press, a tactic the Nogueses believe was calculated to distract attention from apparent misconduct. In 1992, for example, she had requested an emergency hearing at which she persuaded Judge William Gladstone to impose a gag order that prohibited all parties from speaking with the media.
On the opening day of Person's final hearing, she was back to banning reporters. No sooner had Miami Herald staffer Andres Viglucci arrived than he was booted from the courtroom -- at Gievers's request -- because he was listed as a potential witness for the Nogueses. When Viglucci's byline appeared on an article two days later, she again protested to the judge. Only after Herald attorney Jerry Budney met with Gievers, Bujan, and HRS lawyers in a closed-door session did Gievers relent in her effort to ban Viglucci and columnist Liz Balmaseda. Neither was called as a witness.
During the trial itself, Gievers hammered at the media relentlessly. The reason the Nogues children reviled their parents and refused to return home, she now explained, was the press attention the parents had supposedly solicited. The media scrutiny apparently affected others as well. Former guardian Robin Greene, for instance, admitted during her testimony that she blocked an early plan to reunite the Nogueses in part due to the appearance of two articles in New Times. She, along with Gievers, alleged that these stories contained malicious and untruthful statements by Lisette Nogues about her daughter Michelle Porras. Asked to examine the articles, however, Greene discovered that the Nogueses had made no statements about Michelle. Rick Porras, on the other hand, was quoted asserting that "anything Lisette [or] Andres Nogues says is a lie."
Adrienne Nogues, age nine, was stumped. The judge wanted to know how, exactly, her father abused her. "He -- he, um. He was -- um, um... He was touching me and my brothers and sisters," she answered softly.
"Okay," the judge said. "Was there a particular time when you found that out?"
That was much easier. "Yeah," she answered, "when Michelle told me."
Judge Person had scheduled his meetings with the youngest Nogueses in his chambers, away from the enmity of the courtroom, to evaluate them firsthand. The sessions with Adrienne and Daniel had gone smoothly enough. Both had expressed dislike for their parents, but had softened when the judge showed them old home videos taped in the years before the state placed them with Michelle.
Nicole was another story. She identified the move to Michelle and Rick's as the best thing to happen in her life. "It's fun," the twelve-year-old explained to Person. "Michelle doesn't hit me. She's home every day, and when she goes out, we go out with her."
"It sounds like Michelle lets you do everything your mother didn't," the judge suggested.
"Probably, yeah." In fact, Aimee had cited the same rationale -- freedom from her mother's strict household -- when she falsely accused Andres Nogues nearly four years ago. By turns insecure and angry, Nicole sensed Person's skepticism. "You're going to return me to my parents," she announced. "And I'm going to quit school and run away and never come back."
As the last child to see Person, and the eldest, thirteen-year-old Lisette Jr., took it upon herself to win over the judge. She portrayed life with her parents in terms chillingly similar to those Michelle used when she ran away from home as a teen. "Every day my mother would come home and start hitting us for no reason," Lisette Jr. recounted. "And when she hit us, she would get the most thickest belt. And she would hit us until she heard us cry. It was like fun for her. She would grab us by our hairs and pull us up. We were like trained animals."
Person asked why such a hateful mother would risk going to jail -- as Lisette Sr. did for five months in 1990 -- to visit her daughter. "To just remind me, you know, to keep on brainwashing me," the girl replied. "She told me, you know, 'If you tell anybody that I came, I'll go to jail, you know. This is our plan: I'm going to blame it all on Michelle. Don't tell anything Andres had done or what I have done, you know. Lie, you know. Say nothing bad ever happened. Make Rick and Michelle look like the bad ones. And then everything -- we'll be in the newspaper everywhere. We'll be famous and stuff.'"
Though the meetings were intended to be impromptu, Lisette, Jr., continually consulted a crib sheet compiled, as she explained to the judge, at the suggestion of her HRS caseworker. "The media has really hurt us," she noted. She then explained how she often learned of articles documenting her family's tribulations. "June [Shaw] would tell Michelle and sometimes, like, you know, I hear Michelle." And she openly implored the judge not to order reunification. "I'm stable in Michelle and Rick's house," she assured him.
A month later, on June 24, Judge Person called the parties together to announce his decision. The courtroom, for once, fell into a perfect hush. The judge soberly picked up a legal pad -- one of a dozen he had filled during the hearing -- and issued his order: The Nogues family would be reunited. In a brief statement, he stressed that he would encourage the parties to agree on a plan. If they couldn't, his tone implied, he would.
Outside court the Nogueses were encircled by TV cameras. Gievers herself stressed to reporters that the judge had not ordered contact between her clients and the Nogueses. That would only happen, she insisted, once a plan was approved. Her sense of defeat, however, was apparent, and she retreated from the Juvenile Justice Center bowed and silent.
The scene stood in sharp contrast to Gievers's defiant closing statement. Back then, on June 3, she had mustered her best rhetoric for a final assault. The evidence was indisputable, she told the judge: The Nogueses were a dysfunctional family. The youngest children had been abused in the Nogues home. They hated their parents, and rightfully, for encouraging media coverage of their troubles. For a full hour she raged.
Then her tone abruptly softened. Gievers turned to Lisette Nogues, who was seated a few feet away from her estranged daughter Michelle Porras. "Your honor," she began, "at this point I would ask that Michelle -- to see if we can have healing of this family begin -- I would ask that Michelle let her mother hold Michelle's youngest son, who is the grandson of Dr. Lisette Nogues."
The strange and unexpected maneuver provoked a chorus of protest.
"We're in closing argument!" shouted Jesus Bujan, the parents' attorney.
"I want to hold my children," Lisette Nogues cried.
The judge, who had overseen the hearing with preternatural patience, seized the moment to offer a few thoughts of his own. In considering the case, Person said, "I couldn't help but reflect on a statement that I heard at a breakfast meeting: 'We're basically all a bunch of wounded people trying to lead other wounded people.' And so much harm is done when we fail to realize that lawyers, volunteer workers, and, yes, even judges are included among those wounded people.
"I've heard the word 'forgiveness' from at least half of you. Maybe each one of you at one point or other said something about that word. And I'm going to end on this note. Before we can ever get to forgiveness, we have to get to confession."
Person removed his glasses. He surveyed the courtroom, hopeful this message might temper the agitated crowd gathered before him. For a moment his eyes settled on Gievers. Then, finding nothing wounded in the steely gaze that returned his, the judge looked elsewhere.
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