LOS ANGELES, NOV. 29 -- Prosecutors announced today that they are dropping all charges against four women and three men from Bakersfield, Calif., who have each served five years of a combined 2,619-year sentence for alleged child molestation.
The 1985 convictions -- resulting in the stiffest sentences ever assessed in this state, and possibly the country, for child abuse -- were recently overturned by an appeals court that found the prosecutor in the case had behaved improperly.
Following the California Supreme Court's refusal Wednesday to reinstate the convictions, Kern County District Attorney Edward R. Jagels said he would not retry what has come to be called the Pitts case. He said his decision was based on limitations placed by the appeals court on any retrial, on recantations by three child witnesses, and on the strain a new trial would put on the other eight children who said they were molested.
Friends and relatives of the seven defendants, all but one of them related, rejoiced today at the news and said they expected all seven to be released within a week. "It sure was nice to see it," said Bakersfield tree surgeon Roy Nokes, a family friend who helped organize community support.
Glenn Cole, a retired accountant and former grand jury foreman who had sharply criticized what he said was overzealous Kern County molestation investigations in the early 1980s, said, "I have felt all along they were not guilty and so I'm pleased."
The seven defendants -- Ricky and Marcella Pitts, Colleen and Wayne Forsythe, Grace and Wayne Dill Jr. and Gina Miller -- began serving their sentences in the summer of 1985 after being found guilty of sodomizing and molesting the children, allegedly often after forcing drugs or alcohol on them. Some of the victims were said to be their own children, nieces or nephews. Superior Court Judge Gary T. Friedman said as he pronounced the sentences, "I doubt if our friends in the animal kingdom would treat their young in such a fashion."
But all seven continued to insist on their innocence. A few years ago, when an investigative unit of the state attorney general's office publicly criticized another Kern County molestation investigation for pressuring child witnesses into making unquestionably false accusations, the legal tide began to turn in their favor.
At 11, Christina Hayes, one of Ricky Pitts's nieces, was the eldest of the child witnesses. She told investigators she had been pressured into making false charges during repeated visits from police investigators and a social worker in the case. "They told me if I didn't cooperate they would take me away from my dad and put me in a foster home," she said in 1989 in an interview with The Washington Post.
Two other children also recanted, and in September the state appeals court in Fresno reversed the convictions in a sometimes blistering 367-page opinion. The court said the prosecutor, Andrew Gindes, "in his blind quest to convict, forgot or ignored his constitutional and ethical duties as a representative of the people." The court also said Gindes put improper pressure on the jury to convict and was wrong to tell jurors that Christ "took the side of children over adults" in such cases.
Since the Pitts case, a new sheriff has been elected and many of the procedures criticized have been altered. But at least one county investigator was still telling church groups, long after his methods were rejected by the state, that satanic cults were at large, endangering children.
Marcella Pitts, who received a 373-year sentence, told The Post last year that the charges stemmed from an effort by the wife of her ex-husband to keep her from regaining custody of her children.
"I still don't know whether anything happened," said Andrew Rubin, a defense attorney who had called some of the child witness accounts physically impossible, "but I do know that what was alleged didn't happen."
Friends said today the defendants' release is likely to be bittersweet. They are destitute, have missed several years with their children and in some cases remain afraid of resuming their roles as parents. Because of what happened to her, Colleen Forsythe said in an interview two years ago, "I'm scared to death of kids. I'm glad I can't have any more."
Jagels, in a statement, said he was disappointed the appeals court "chose to dwell exclusively on the prosecutors' conduct, rather than the issue of guilt or innocence" and that his attorneys had acted as they did "to defend vulnerable child witnesses from abusive defense tactics."
Although still convinced of the defendants' guilt, Jagels said he concluded the child witnesses "have now had to live with years of uncertainty and notoriety due to the protracted and celebrated nature of this case. ... At some point this litigation must end, and they must be permitted the opportunity to lead their own lives."