In the course of crusading against child molesters, Janet Reno undermines the justice system. [Producers: Michael Kirk, Rick Young/ Journalist: Peter J. Boyer/ 60 min/ Documentary-Educational/ Bureaucratic Abuse of Power-Excessive Force, Law & the Individual]
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Long before Janet Reno ordered the bloody raid at Waco “in the name of the children,” she had been at the forefront of another “pro-child” terror. That little-known story is told in this terrific PBS Frontline documentary.
The story begins in the early 1980s, when the nation was stunned by a rash of child-molestation accusations fanned by a media frenzy on the subject. Despite the frequency of the accusations, skeptical juries were hesitant to convict because the charges were generally uncorroborated by physical evidence or adult witnesses. Enter Janet Reno, then chief prosecutor in Miami. As told here, she decided to bend the rules to make convictions easier.
The accused would no longer be entitled to face the accuser, a right guaranteed by the Constitution; nor would direct cross-examination be possible. Instead, the alleged victims of abuse would be interviewed on videotape by “experts,” who would then present the videotaped evidence in court on their behalf. The method worked. It was so successful in producing convictions that it became a model for prosecutors around the country. Reno became a hero to some, and gained a national reputation that would eventually catapult her into the job of U.S. Attorney General.
However, the tide finally turned against this method, with the case of Bobby Fijnje. Fijnje’s particular nightmare at Reno’s hands is presented in some detail in this film. He was a student babysitter at a church day-care center. In response to an accusation of child molestation made against him, he was arrested and put on trial. Though only fourteen years old, Reno had him tried as an adult (he was warned that, if convicted, he would be “on every inmate’s dance card”). He faced the possibility of seven mandatory life terms.
Per the Reno method, Fijnje’s alleged victims were interviewed on videotape. Coached by “experts,” they gave the usual damaging evidence. However, Fijnje was lucky. The trial took two years, and by that time the public was beginning to question the likelihood of rampant child molestation—particularly when, as in Fijnje’s case, it allegedly included ritual animal sacrifice. The jury cleared him on all charges. Subsequently, many of Reno’s earlier convictions were quietly overturned on appeal, thanks to the work of a few heroic civil rights lawyers including one interviewed here, Robert Rosenthal. Says Rosenthal, “When I see the state doing what they do in these cases, that’s where my rage builds. The arrogance … how they take the Constitution and throw it out the window so [they] can get this guy.”
Since the Fijnje case, the Reno method itself has also been discredited, and it’s easy to see why. Some of the actual video of children being coached is shown in this film, and it’s shocking to see. Children are manipulated into making charges through a battery of repeated leading questions. In some cases, children who insist that they were not molested at all are simply questioned over and over again, until they say that they were. As a child psychologist who reviewed the videotaped interviews says here, “They were quite problematic interviews, every single one of the tapes that I saw. I sit and look at it as a researcher and I cringe!”
This production is a very well-organized and persuasive documentary. It’s a must-see for anyone concerned about corruption of the U.S. judicial system.