Six years ago, in a Bridgeport, CT. courtroom, my friend was accused of being a child molester.
A nine-year-old girl took the witness stand, testifying about the sexual abuse she had allegedly suffered at a local synagogue from its caretaker. When the prosecutor asked her to point to the man who had done this to her, she pointed at my friend.
One problem: my friend was not the defendant. He was one of the jurors.
Flustered by the misidentification, the prosecutor asked the girl if she was sure. She proceeded to point at a different juror.
As you might expect, the jury quickly acquitted the defendant, a 65-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant named Alfredo Vargas. If, however, you think the girl’s erratic testimony indicated a youngster intimidated by facing her assailant in a legal environment, you’re wrong. This was in fact Vargas’ second trial; he had been identified and convicted in the first and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Fortunately for Mr. Vargas, several of the synagogue’s congregants did not believe the allegation. The girl’s family was known to make wild accusations – they had leveled abuse claims against several other people - and there is no privacy in the area where the attacks supposedly occurred. They raised money for Vargas’ defense and got his conviction overturned.
If you believe justice was thus served, you would again be wrong. Vargas had been in America since 1969 and had a reputation as a hard worker - he built the sanctuary himself, according to this New York Times article about the case. However, his arrest led to the discovery that he was in the country illegally. His reward for acquittal: deportation.
(Note: I’m not printing my friend’s name because I don’t want it to be linked to child molestation in a Google search.)
Child molestation is one of the most despicable crimes known to man. We comprehend the lifelong damage it can inflict on innocent children, we are thoroughly disgusted by the details - as we have been by the Catholic Church and Jerry Sandusky / Penn State scandals - and we react with justifiable outrage when such a story goes public.
The Sandusky case is unusual in one respect: we have third-party eyewitness testimony to the crimes. Molestation cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute because the crimes usually happen behind closed doors to young victims who are often reluctant to come forward. Physical evidence is often nonexistent or ambiguous.
The flip side, however, is that molestation allegations can be shockingly easy to fabricate. If they are hard to prove, they are also hard to disprove. Just the allegation can ruin a person’s reputation, so it’s no surprise that allegations frequently arise during times of personal rancor, like a bitter divorce. The accusers depend on our knee-jerk outrage to soil the accused’s reputation. And it works. As the case above – and, say, incidents like the Duke lacrosse case – demonstrate, it’s distressingly easy to convince intelligent people that something bad happened when it most likely did not. Sometimes, it seems that people want to believe the worst. Sadly, this makes it harder for true victims of abuse to be heard.
As a former student at Syracuse University, I have watched with dismay as my school has been linked to Penn State with its own abuse scandal. Not just dismay that sexual abuse may have occurred at my old school, but dismay at the thought that an innocent man may have been ruined by false accusations and an overreaction.
In contrast to Penn State’s see-no-evil response to Sandusky, Syracuse fired assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine in November when two allegations from nearly a decade ago, which had been investigated at the time, were revived and two additional accusers came forward. The old saying is that where there is smoke, there is fire, but as if to prove that cliché as the most inane in the English language, both subsequent accusers have been unmasked as liars.
Floyd VanHoosen, a prison inmate who once lived with Fine after both his parents died, admitted that he had lied to both the Associated Press and Syracuse Post-Standard about Fine’s behavior because he was angry that Fine had refused to hire him a defense attorney. In a subsequent interview, VanHoosen claimed that police investigators had led him to make accusations and that he immediately regretted going along with it. "Bernie has been nothing but good to me over the years,” insisted VanHoosen. “He was the only thing I had close to a father. He never did anything wrong. He is a good man."
Zach Tomaselli claimed that Fine molested him in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 2002, when Syracuse traveled there for a game. Tomaselli, who is himself awaiting trial in Maine on charges of abusing a boy, had also leveled abuse claims at his estranged father, which the state of New York investigated and dismissed. The father, in return, claims that Tomaselli has never met Fine.
After Tomaselli came forward, New York State investigated his claim, deemed them not credible, and turned over exculpatory material to Fine’s lawyers; reportedly, his account of travel and accommodations don’t jibe with documented facts. Last week, Tomaselli admitted that the contents of emails he had recently forwarded from the police to the Syracuse newspaper had been altered by him. Although Tomaselli still insists the abuse took place, his attorney has dropped his lawsuit against Fine.
Which leaves the first two accusers, who were deemed credible by state investigators (though their charges can’t be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations). Both of them, now adults, had served as ball boys for the basketball team. Bobby Davis began making his claims in 2002 (at a time when Davis and Fine were reportedly having a financial dispute over a $5,000 loan to help Davis pay off student loans). The Syracuse police declined to prosecute, though it should be noted that the police chief at the time was himself a former Syracuse basketball player. According to ESPN, Davis told authorities that his step-brother, Michael Lang, would corroborate his account; Lang did not. However, after the Sandusky case became public this fall, Lang began to corroborate Davis’ story with abuse claims of his own.
The main evidence in the case is an audio tape of a conversation between Davis and Fine’s wife, made without her knowledge, in which she discusses her husband’s behavior and also admits that she had a sexual relationship with Davis. Mrs. Fine admits that it is her voice on the tape, but insists that it has been heavily doctored.
In 2003, ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard took possession of copies of the tape. Neither they, nor Davis, ever turned a copy over to the police. The Post-Standard, in a recent editorial, described the contents:
Captured on tape was a conversation that sounds sleazy and sickening -- and vague and ambiguous. Some of the language seems to support Davis' depiction of his relationship with Fine. "Seems" wasn't good enough to publish this story. If you were the target of such damaging accusations, you'd expect that degree of care from us.
Only in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal did either media outlet revisit the story. Some observers, such as the sports website Deadspin, have implied that ESPN only revived the story because they were embarrassed to have been scooped on the Penn State story.
I have no idea if Bernie Fine molested those two young men. If he did, he will rot in hell. But if in fact he did not, we have condemned him to a less abstract type of hell – one in which his livelihood has been denied him and his name will forever be soiled with little chance for it to be cleared. Until solid, court-admissible evidence appears, I will continue to consider him an innocent man.
Stories like these have a cost beyond the lives of those involved. I was saddened to read a recent piece by Phil Taylor, a columnist for Sports Illustrated who also coaches a youth basketball team, in which he declared that he is no longer willing to drive kids to and from the games, as he had sometimes done in the past:
I consider how the simple act of driving a 14-year-old boy home might be misinterpreted, especially after reading accounts about how predators often use such rides to gain trust. I recognize that I would have no proof to the contrary if, a couple of months, years or decades from now, one of my players for some reason claimed that something horrible had happened in my car.
Near my desk, I have a large folder bursting with stories I’ve collected over the years of people who have been accused and/or convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, of accusations that have been recanted, of exonerations based on DNA evidence. I’m a proud supporter of the Innocence Project, which to date has exonerated 289 people who were falsely convicted of crimes. It’s enough to make me initially skeptical of any criminal allegation that appears in the news. While many respond with predictable outrage, I am more likely to respond with, “OK, prove it.” I used to be ashamed of that, fearing that I was being insensitive to victims. Then I realized that, in fact, I was being sensitive to victims.