A New Jersey father denied contact with his daughter for more than two years because of molestation charges that later proved false has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the barring of his visits.
Lawrence D. Spiegel, a Parsipanny, N.J., psychologist whose book on his case has become popular among parents in similar situations, filed the suit almost two years after a jury acquitted him of sexual-abuse charges brought by his ex-wife during a bitter custody dispute.
Jessica Spiegel, 4, had testified via closed-circuit television about an incident that allegedly occurred with she was 2 1/2, apparently the first time a child so young had been allowed to testify in such circumstances about such distant events.
As a condition of his release from jail before trial, Spiegel was denied even supervised visits with Jessica. The suit -- against prosecutors, a state judge and Gov. Thomas H. Keane (R) -- charges that the bail agreement was designed to "coerce him to plead" guilty.
"He couldn't send her a Christmas present. He couldn't even send her a Christmas card for two years," Spiegel's attorney, Steven P. Haft, said. "That's just not fair."
In an interview, Spiegel said political pressure from parents' groups led Congress, during passage of child-abuse legislation last year, to add a phrase calling for "due regard for parental rights" in alleged abuse cases. But he noted that family courts are so overloaded because of high divorce rates and that state laws on custody are so contradictory that many people are still wrongfully denied contact with their children. "The toll which the court exacts on the litigants is devastating; emotionally, psychologically and financially."
Nancy Thoennes, director of a major research project on such cases for the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, said preliminary results indicated only 2 percent of contested custody cases involve charges of sexual abuse, although many officials said this is a sharp increase from a decade ago.
Spiegel was arrested and handcuffed in the parking lot of his office in Randolph, N.J., on Dec. 9, 1983, and was charged with aggravated sexual assault. According to court testimony, doctors found no conclusive physical evidence that sexual abuse had occurred during Jessica's overnight visit to her father's house the week before.
As a condition of bail, Spiegel was barred from any contact with his daughter, even with other adults present. He said Morris County assistant prosecutor Michael Rubbinaccio, one of the officials named in the suit, objected even to a hearing on the possibility of a supervised visit "on the grounds that I was a psychologist and could use some kind of super witchcraft to tamper with a witness."
Spiegel's defense attorney, Herb Korn, said prosecutors told him, "If your client wants to plead to a lesser charge, he will get to see his kid."
By rejecting or failing to consider Spiegel's requests for supervised visits before the acquittal, the officials involved violated his rights to privacy, due process of law, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of association and "preservation of the family unit," the suit alleges.
Keane press secretary Carl Golden said the governor's legal advisers told him in 1985 he should not intervene in Spiegel's or any other pending court case. Spokesmen for others named in the suit said they could not comment until they received the papers.
During Spiegel's trial in January 1986, Jessica testified that her father had kissed her on the genitals and had "hurt me." At another point, she testified that her mother said her father was "sick in the head."
Spiegel charged that his ex-wife, who testified that she "hated his guts" after their divorce, had coached the child. Spiegel's divorce lawyer testified that they overheard her say she would make sure Spiegel "never saw my child again."
Spiegel said the case ruined his practice, at least temporarily. The suit asks $100,000 in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages.
Jessica now lives with her mother in Georgia and spends holidays and summers with her father.