Witch Hunt

Today, I was made aware of a movie project – called Witch Hunt– it is a documentary produced and narrated by Sean Penn.

This movie highlights the story of John Stoll, and dozens of other men and women, who found themselves falsely accused – and falsely convicted – of child molestation in Kern County, California!

Below is the synopsis as it appears on the movie’s website:

On the night John Stoll was roused from his bed and carted off to jail, his attitude bordered on the cavalier.
“Aren’t you worried?” His lawyer wondered.
“Hell no, I ain’t worried,” John answered. “I didn’t do this. You can’t convict me of something I didn’t do.”

It was more than two decades before John Stoll was free again.

Executive Producer Sean Penn proudly presents “Witch Hunt,” a gripping indictment of the United States justice system told through the lens of one small town. It’s John Stoll’s story, but it’s also the story of dozens of other men and women who found themselves ensnared in a spiral of fear, ignorance and hysteria. These people are Americans, working class moms and dads, who were rounded up with little or no evidence, charged and convicted of almost unimaginable crimes. All sexual. All crimes against children. Years, sometimes decades later, they would find freedom again, but their lives and the lives of their children would be changed forever. This film shows viewers what the real crime in this case is, not molestation, but the crime of coercion. Viewers hear from the child witnesses who were forced to lie on the witness stand as they describe scary sessions with sheriff’s deputies in which they were told — not asked — about sexual experiences that happened to them. Their coerced testimony led to dozens of convictions. Many times their own parents were the ones they put behind bars.

Soon after the trials, the children started to crack. They told adults of the lies they’d been forced to tell on the stand and hoped it would make a difference. It didn’t and the convicted continued to sit in prison. As the allegations grew more outlandish, California’s Attorney General wrote a scathing report on the court misconduct, but instead of being buried by criticism, Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels thrived, doing what he did best– putting people away. He boasted one of the highest conviction rates in the country. This strategy served him well. Jagels is still in office today. Through new interviews, archival footage, and unflinching narration by Mr. Penn, the filmmakers construct an intimate film that illustrates a universal point; when power is allowed to exist without oversight from the press, the community or law enforcement, the rights of everyday citizens can be lost for decades. National film critic Marshall Fine says, “This is a chilling story about American law-enforcement run amok and untethered. It’s particularly timely in the wake of revelations about the way the Bush administration has trampled American civil rights. A movie that can’t help but move you – to tears and to action.”

I immediately purchased, and watched this movie…and, even having personally gone through a similar story, I find it frightening to think that this kind of thing can happen to anyone.  One of the most impactful quotes for me from this movie is from Jeff Modahl, who served 15 years in prison before his conviction was overturned.  Jeff speaks about false allegations and says, “This does happen – and it can be you, your neighbor, your son or daughter.  It can happen right now in your own home.  There’s no rhyme or reason why it happens.  If somebody wants to do it – it can happen.”

I highly recommend this movie to everyone.  It will certainly make you think twice, even three times, every time you hear an allegation!  For more information on the movie, and how it benefits the California Innocence Project, please click HERE.  To purchase the DVD, please click HERE, or to download from iTunes click HERE.

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8 thoughts on “Witch Hunt

  1. John says:

    I am 62 years old, old. My son who is 35 was recently sent to prison for something he did not do. He was on a dating site called plenty of fish, he met this person through that site who had three very young girls, one who had been molested by her cousin 1 week prior to their meeting. My son has a 5 year old son who my son was looking for a family to which he could give to his child, the mother was on house arrest at the time of their first meeting and was allowed to go to the beach and other places, she was charged for trying to kill her ex husband but they only put her in house arrest because she had the children. She and nmy son dated for almost a month when her oldest daughter molested his son, at the time the son was 5 and when the girl molested him he began to cry and coughing. My son went into the room and tried to get his son back to sleep. His son was born with a cleft pallet, lip and scoliosis. The boys mother didn’t want anything to do with him and left his life when he was two. My son moved in with my wife and I and we began to build structure in the childs life while my son was a dedicated worker, he took his son with him where ever he went when he was off work.
    After the girl molested my grandson his dad got him back to sleep and went back to the girls mothers room and the next day, his son had to be at summer school, so he drove his son to school an hours drive from where they were and while driving him to school my grandson told his dad what the girl did to him, this angered my son, so after he brought him home and got him dressed for school drove him to school then went back to the dates house and confronted the girls mother about what his son had told him, he then broke it off with the girls mother and the mother told him she was going to have him locked up, during the day she coached her daughter to tell her grandmother that this man did some very disturbing things to her and that evening she did. My heart is broken that my son has to spend time in prison for something he did not do. Why do I know he didn’t do it, because the girl told her story to her grandmother that evening when my son asked me what I would do if I was looking at a threat like that, 8 hours before the girl according to the report made the accusation to her grandmother and by the way was the first time the girl said anything. I told my son when he asked to lawyer up and report the incident to CFS, when he reported the incident to them they interviewed my grandson the first time when it was reported and they said it was something kids do, but when they filed a warrant for my sons arrest they interviewed him again three months later and they said he was coached, CFS is not family oriented they are totally one sided, it isn’t kid against kid. It is Kid controlling the lives of adults when they are instructed by their parents to do so. There is so much more to this and it compares to the information in Witch Hunt, be careful what you say and do and stay away from women with children, they will use them to hurt others if you make them angry, don’t be the hunted.

  2. Jesslyn says:

    Is there any organization where people who have been falsely accused and convicted of child molest can go to and seek legal help/advice? I have heard of three christian men who were falsely accused of molest. One of them was my own precious father. He is one of the most straight forward and humble men I know. He was accused by two little girls who are the children of a mother who was a child molest victim and a dad whose father was convicted of child molest. When my Dad was first arrested… my sister called an attorney and he told her that in California the D.A. only needs to prove opportunity. We still foolishly trusted the American judicial system. 😦 The jury was never allowed to know the details of the children’s parents molest history. One of the girls… did not even know “where her poop comes out” but she testified she was molested? So crazy. In essence the attorney was right …. prove opportunity. Men are being sacrificed by the testimony of children just like those “witches” during the Salem witch trials. Someone needs to bring sanity back to our judicial system and put an end to the witch/molest hunt.

  3. Craig says:

    if there is one thing i learned in the navy it is that SHIT rolls down hill. Ed Jagel is and was responsible for all of the misconduct going on. he should man-up. in my own opinion i think he should burn at the stake for ruining dozons of peoples lives for his own success (a number on paper). he should do time in prison just like those innocent people did. at the very least he needs to be booted out of office. my ex-brother in law was convicted of child molestation in ridgecrest (kern county) makes me wonder if he really did it.

  4. Definitely on my list to watch. Plan to write up an article on FAD about it like you did here. Thanks for the post!

  5. I’m so glad you got this movie! I am assuming you found this through my post on another website dealing with these issues. I posted the link to this movie on my comment. When I 1st watched this, I swore they were telling our story! I sobbed and cried and then I became active. I realized that until the public knew the truth, they would continue to be blind as we were. Thank you for posting this. EVERYONE in our country should see this movie. It’s still happening today and through my advocacy I’ve learned of too many stories just like ours and yours and theirs. God Bless you for having a voice!

    • Dean Tong says:

      Child Research on False Memories

      Mr. Science Experiment (Poole and Lindsey, 2001): Three year old children observed a man conducting science experiments. Four months later parents read a story to them which stated that Mr. Science had “put something yucky in their mouth.” This did not occur. At a follow up interview, more than half the children stated that Mr. Science had indeed put something yucky in their mouth even though they had been warned to only report what really happened.

      This experiment not only revealed that children can be influenced by suggestion, but also that children are susceptible to source-monitoring errors. Source-monitoring refers to the knowledge of whether an event was actually experienced or something that was heard or told to them.

      Mouse Trap Study (Ceci, et al 1994): Preschool children were asked to imagine getting their hand caught in a mouse trap. For 10 weeks, the children were asked to think about real and imagined events. 58% of children stated their hand had indeed been caught in the mouse trap and many children became very elaborate in their details. Even after telling the children that the event never happened, 27% refused to accept the truth and persisted that events happened to them that did not. Thus, a false memory was successfully created. And more than half of the children evidenced source-monitoring errors.

      Chester the Cleaner Study (Clarke-Stewart, et al, 1989): Five and six year old interacted with “Chester” while he cleaned dolls and toys. Chester either handled the doll gently or roughly and made statement such as, “I like to spray water in dolls faces.” The children were later interviewed about the event by different interviewers who differed in their interpretation of the event. Based on whether the interviewer was neutral or suggestive influenced the children’s accuracy. 75% of the children made false remarks that were consistent with the interviewer’s point of view. This study showed suggestibility effects and the role of interviewer beliefs on children’s subsequent reports.

      Simon Says Study (Ceci et al, 1999): Children played a game of Simon says. One month later, interviewers were either given accurate or inaccurate information about the play episode. 34% of three and four year old children corroborated one or more events that the inaccurate interviewer believed had occurred. As the children reported inaccurate events, their stories became more credible. This study again shows the influence of interviewer expectancy on children’s reports.

      Park Ranger Study (Petit, Fegan, and Howe, 1990): Two actors posing as park rangers visited a nursing school. While in the classroom one of them knocked over a cake. Two weeks later the children were interviewed by an interviewer that was given either accurate or inaccurate information. 41% of the preschools reported false information when interviewed by a person with inaccurate information. This study showed the effects of interviewer bias on children’s report.

      Monster in the Box Study (Harris et al, 1991): Preschool children were asked to imagine that an empty box either contained a monster or a rabbit. 25% of four year olds asked to imagine a monster in the box became fearful when the experimenter tried to leave the room. Over half of the 4 to 6 year old children began to wonder if the imaginary creature in the box was real. This data indicates the fragility of children’s distinction between reality and fantasy, leading to the conclusion that the use of fantasy in forensic interviews can increase suggestibility effects.

      Dean Tong, MSc.

      • IWFA says:

        Wow – this is really awesome information that I had never seen before. Thank you for sharing!

        ~ IWFA

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