Distributed September 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Ross Cheit

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 765 Words

Ross Cheit

False-conviction chic in the Berkshires

Robert Halsey was convicted in 1993 of sexually abusing two boys on his school van route in Lanesboro, Mass. There was a mountain of evidence against him, and he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Now a growing movement is trying to suggest that Halsey was unjustly convicted. A country that cherishes the presumption of innocence still needs to learn something about the presumption of guilt.

There is a dark side to the growing movement on behalf of persons falsely convicted by the criminal justice system: phony false-conviction claims. There is just such a phony claim currently brewing in the Berkshires that would, if successful, free a horrendous child molester.

As long-time residents of the Berkshires will remember, Robert Halsey was convicted in 1993 of sexually abusing two boys on his school van route in Lanesboro, Mass. There was a mountain of evidence against him. The two boys he sexually assaulted had clear medical signs of the abuse. Their disclosures were extremely detailed and they were written up well before the boys were involved in any repeat interviews, therapy sessions or other measures which are commonly cited as sources of “child suggestibility.”

The boys accurately described a virtual cache of weapons that Halsey brought with him on the school van. One accurately described how to get to Halsey’s house – even though Halsey claimed the boys had never been there.

Various parts of the boys’ testimony were corroborated by three other children, two of whom had moved to Florida nine months before Halsey was arrested. They too had been threatened with knives, a gun and duct tape. A third local girl said that Robert Halsey had waved a knife at her and choked her. (Something Halsey had done to her a year before the case broke resulted in his quiet transfer to a high school route. According to the Lanesboro police chief, Halsey “could have gotten ten years” for what he did to the girl.)

Halsey never took the stand. This is not surprising since he told the police several lies the day of his arrest. He was convicted by jury and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

A year after his conviction, however, Halsey’s name started appearing on lists of persons who allegedly had been falsely convicted. A professor at MIT posted a note about the Halsey case on a Web site he called the “Witch Hunt Information Page.” Writing in the prestigious New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews, a retired English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, claimed the justice system had “failed” Robert Halsey. Halsey’s name was even entered into the annals of Congress by Carol Hopkins of the San Diego-based “Justice Committee.”

But no one offered an explanation for this dubious claim of false conviction – until now. Lona Manning, a free-lance writer from British Columbia, recently published an Internet article labeling Halsey the “long forgotten innocent man.” [www.crimemagazine.com/halsey.htm]

Manning’s “critique” is instructive for what it reveals about the ways in which children’s testimony is twisted and dismissed by some adults. She dismisses the entire testimony of one girl because the child could not remember the color of the duct tape! She discredits one of the primary witnesses because, after answering 21 questions in a row about the sexual assault, he answered “I don’t know” to a single question. [For a more detailed critical analysis see www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Manning.]

None of this would be worth mentioning if the entire story was simply that the Internet contains a fallacious defense of Robert Halsey. The Internet is filled with fringe claims. But this claim has the endorsement of a nonprofit organization with a truly Orwellian name: the National Center for Reason and Justice. That organization boasts several prominent writers and professors as advisors. One can only wonder whether those prominent people reviewed the actual evidence before jumping on the false conviction bandwagon.

Even people outside the Berkshires should take notice when a man as guilty as Robert Halsey attracts the endorsement of academics and others. “False-conviction chic” might generate media attention, but it is terribly unfair to the families who endured Halsey’s abuse and criminal trial.

A country that cherishes the presumption of innocence still needs to learn something about the presumption of guilt. The presumption of guilt should set in after conviction and it should not be removed because of flimsy insinuations that drive a cynical attempt to retry a case like Robert Halsey’s. His victims deserve better.

The Halsey case taught the nation one lesson in 1993: Sexual abuse can happen where it is least expected and remain hidden far longer than many adults care to admit. Children often suffer in silence.

Almost ten years later, the Halsey case is offering another lesson: Not only can these things happen, but some people will minimize the damage and then deny evidence long after guilt has been proven. This should raise serious questions and concern. Because if they succeed, children in the Berkshires will the ones in jeopardy.

Ross E. Cheit is associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University and director of the Law and Public Policy Program at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. An attorney and scholar, Cheit is currently writing a book on the law and politics of child sexual abuse.

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