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Religious Tolerance logo

1996 Day of Contrition:
Protesting modern-day witch hunts

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The witch hunts in Salem and other New England towns in the early 1690's are a dark stain on the history of North America. Some 19 innocent people were hung in Salem because they would not confess that they were Witches, and one person was pressed to death because he would not issue a plea. 11 were hung in Connecticut. About 5 years later, people in the Salem area were profoundly distressed at the terrible miscarriage of justice that had taken place in their colony. They took part in an official day of fasting and remorse.

From the early 1980's to the present time, a similar witch hunt has taken place: people have been accused, charged, tried and convicted of ritual and/or sexual abuse of children, based on unreliable evidence derived from:
bullet unreliable, suggestive recovered memory therapy

bullet unreliable, suggestive child interview techniques

Hundreds of innocent people were thrown in jail for crimes that they did not commit. It would appear that, with the possible exception of one case in Florida, none of the events for which they were charged actually happened. Their cases have been reviewed, and most or all have been released from prison. Sometimes they had spent 12 or more years in jail.

A new "Day of Contrition" was organized in Salem MA on the 300th anniversary of the original day, 1996-JAN-14. The press release of the organizers, The Justice Committee, follows:

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Carol Lamb Hopkins, Executive Director


SALEM CONFERENCE WILL CHALLENGE TODAY'S PLAGUE OF INJUSTICE As the widely acclaimed film adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible opens across the country, some 300 writers, scholars, scientists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and concerned citizens, joined by individuals recently freed from wrongful imprisonment, will gather early next week in Salem, Massachusetts, for the first-ever national convocation on contemporary witch hunts. The day-long event will address the reasons and remedies for the nationwide epidemic of spurious accusations and prosecutions; those based on testimony forced from children by flawed interviewing techniques in sexual abuse investigations, therapeutically created recovered memories of supposed childhood incest, and those based on false confessions extracted by police interrogators. On January 14, 1697, five years after the famous "witchcraft trials," the entire community of His Majesty's Province of the Massachusetts Bay, in obedience to a proclamation, took part in a day of fasting and remorse. It was a rare and historic acknowledgment of the hysteria and judicial errors that had led to "great hardship brought upon innocent persons" --- including the 19 put to death.

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One year after the 300th anniversary, in January 14, 1997, in an auditorium at Salem's Essex-Peabody Museum, the far more extensive parallels of the injustices of three centuries ago were examined by a powerful lineup of experts on miscarriages of justice. They described the modern forms of "spectral evidence" used to condemn and incarcerate thousands of citizens for crimes they did not commit.

Videotaped commentaries by playwright Arthur Miller and author William Styron - prepared especially for the convocation, will set the stage for presentations by such figures as:
bullet John Putnam Demos, Yale University history professor and descendent of Salem accuser Ann Putnam.
bullet Alan Rubenstein. The District Attorney from a county in Pennsylvania, and author of the 1990 report dealing with his investigation into false allegations of ritual abuse at a local day school.
bullet Elizabeth Loftus, University of Washington memory researcher and co-author of The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations Sexual Abuse.

bullet Debbie Nathan, journalist, co-author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.

bullet Paul Noel Chretien, Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice.

bullet Frederick Crews, University of California, Berkeley, Professor of English, historian of psychoanalysis; principal author of The Memory Wars.

bullet Pamela Freyd, University of Pennsylvania researcher, founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

bullet Donald Connery, former Time-Life correspondent; author of Guilty Until Proven Innocent and editor of Convicting the Innocent.

bullet Moira Johnston, author of Spectral Evidence which deals with California's landmark Gary Ramona case.

bullet Robert Perske, advocate for persons with mental disabilities, author of Unequal Justice and Deadly Innocence.

bullet Richard Leo, University of Colorado sociology professor; creator of the nation's first false confession data bank.

bullet Tom Grant, KREM-TV reporter, winner of the 1996 George Polk Award, and finalist for that year's Columbia Dupont Award for his coverage of the Wenatchee, WA witch hunts.

Among the falsely accused former defendants who attended the convocation (and were available for interviews) were:
bullet Kelly Michaels: a teacher's aide imprisoned for five years in New Jersey's Wee Care ritual abuse case before her 47-year sentence was overturned on appeal.

bullet Peggy Ann Buckey and Ray Buckey: teachers accused and jailed in Ca1ifornia's landmark McMartin Preschool case (1984-1990) --the longest, costliest trial in U.S. history at the time.

bullet Cheryl and Violet Amirault, mother and daughter convicted in the Massachusetts' Fells Acres Case. Their convictions were overturned after 14 years imprisonment.

bullet Bobby Finje: a youth, aged 14 at the time, who was tried for ritual abuse by Dade County, Florida . The prosecutor, Janet Reno, later became the U.S. Attorney General, He was held without bail for over a year before his acquittal.

bullet Pastor and Mrs. Roby Roberson, who were separated for years from their child, then tried and acquitted in the Wenatchee Washington "sex ring" scandal of false accusations.

bullet Brenda and Scott Kniffen, sentenced to 240 years each in the Kern County, CA sex ring cases; Their convictions were later overturned.

"The analogy to Salem is by no means overstated." said Carol Hopkins, the principal convocation organizer and executive director of The Justice Committee in San Diego [CA]. "The witchcraft mentality is still with us" in the forced accusations and confessions and as we see hundreds of men and women languishing behind bars for such imagined crimes as torturing and sacrificing babies during Satanic rituals. Our message is "Enough"."These prosecutions must end and, just as importantly, we must release the falsely convicted and make reparations to them. The convocation will again echo the Justice Committee's demand for Congressional hearings into these cases."

The January 14 conference, not open to the public, was held at the Essex-Peabody Museum, beginning at 8:30 a.m. On the previous day starting at 1 p.m., two forums of experts discussed social science issues and legal and legislative remedies. On the night of the 13th attendees walked by candlelight to Salem's memorial to the witch trials victims. They held a vigil for today's prisoners of hysteria and reckless prosecution. The public was welcome to join in the vigil.

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