'Did Daddy Do It?'
With Michael Kirk
Friday, April 26, 2002; 11 a.m. EDT
In 1984, Frank Fuster was living in the Miami suburbs with a new wife and his 5-year-old son. Then the couple was charged with sexually abusing more than 20 children who attended their unlicensed home day-care center. Fuster, who had prior convictions for manslaughter and child molestation, was branded a "monster" by parents and the local media, and was convicted and sentenced to 165 years in prison.
The case established a successful method for prosecuting similar day-care abuse cases nationwide, and it boosted the political fortunes of a state attorney named Janet Reno. But was Fuster guilty of the sexual abuse charges for which he was convicted? Or was he the victim of a tainted investigation?
FRONTLINE's "Did Daddy Do It?" airing Thursday, April 25, at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS (check local listings), reveals new evidence that questions the seemingly ironclad case against him. It also includes new allegations by Fuster's former wife that Reno personally participated in a campaign to break her down psychologically in order to force her to testify falsely against her husband.
Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk was online to talk about the case and his film on Friday, April 26. The transcript follows.
Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online in February to discuss "American Porn," in November to discuss "Gunning for Saddam," and in October to talk about "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy.
FRONTLINE Editor's Note: In this chat, producer Michael Kirk incorrectly states that Frank Fuster was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Fuster pled guilty to manslaughter in 1969. FRONTLINE regrets the error.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Hutchinson, Kan.: I am very disgusted and appalled after watching your program which aired on April 25, 2002. I think that an investigation needs to be filed into the visits made by Janet Reno to Ileana Flores. Would these not be on camera? I feel that all of the testimonies against Mr. Fuster were coerced by Reno and her associates to help her public appearance and standing. She should be investigated deeply to find out what she gained by this trial and the outcome.
Since the other cases were re-opened due to the way the children were interviewed, why wasn't this? What keeps this from happening to any of us? I think that the punishment fits the crime, but I don't agree with the way that he was prosecuted. In a way, I believe he was framed just to prove a point. This is very scary!
It makes me sick to think that a possible innocent man has been incarcerated for so long.
Michael Kirk: It's unfortunate that former attorney general Reno would not talk at length with "Frontline," because we would have asked her all the questions you're asking. My personal sense is that many people, most people, on the prosecution and media sides of this story had the best interests of children at heart in the beginning, and that was their primary motivation. But I worry that when the panic set in as a result in some measure of their actions, that cooler heads didn't prevail. And that's really what the film is about -- was justice done?
Providence, R.I.: During the "Frontline" show last night, you show a clip of Ileana Fuster getting yelled at by Frank during her testimony. It appears to me that Frank's reaction is quite violent, don't you think?
Michael Kirk: Frank's life story is one of occasional bursts of anger and at least once, violence (he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a road rage incident). Which is not to say any of us might not have wanted to jump out of our chairs and yell at a moment like that. But it is true that in front of a jury, that was definitely not the right move, and may have belied a truly violent and fearsome nature.
Somewhere, USA: You didn't do TRUE victims of child sexual abuse any favor tonight with your tainted presentation of the suffering of a convicted child molester and his ex-wife.
Why don't you follow this up with a "Frontline" about the suffering that adult child sexual abuse survivors had to go through? Or maybe that's not sensational enough for you? Or you won't get as high a rating? Shame, shame on you.
Michael Kirk: In the film we made, I feel great sympathy for the 20 children who may or may not have been abused sexually. Part of my sense of sympathy grows out of the treatment they were subjected to by the process -- the prosecutors, the psychologists, the media should ask themselves whether they added to or inflicted other kinds of abuse on these children.
Colleen, Va.: It appears that the "Miami method" of interviewing young children in crime investigations is flawed due, in part, to the desire of such children to tell adults what they want to hear. Obviously, though, children who are victims of molestation need to be able to tell their story. Are there other techniques that will acquire accurate testimony?
Michael Kirk: The answer is absolutely yes. Methods have been specially developed in the last decade for asking open-ended and non-invasive questions designed to truly elicit information. It isn't easy, but psychologists tell me they're getting better at it, partly because they've learned what not to do from cases like the ones we showed last night.
WGBH Viewer: Why did "Frontline" rely on the defense lawyer's assertion about the STD test being unreliable, when there is documented evidence that his claim is wrong?
Shouldn't Frontline have found that evidence?
(It's now online for everyone to read.)
Michael Kirk: Without question, in my mind, as a journalist with a variety of resources available to me, the STD tests performed in the Snowden case and the Fuster case were problematic. There's no doubt that there are other well-intentioned people who want to believe Frank Fuster committed these crimes, who could read this evidence in another way, especially if it confirmed opinions long held and well formed. Obviously, the experts we spoke with (including the CDC) are not confident the tests used were reliable.
Fair Haven, Vt.: Why wasn't a lie detector test given to either one of them, or given to them now?
Michael Kirk: Ileana took polygraphs. The results were inconclusive and inadmissible.
Providence, R.I.: Michael,
Does Ileana's bias, track record of changing her story, and admitted self-interest question the validity of her "new statement" to you at all?
Michael Kirk: The question to me is not whether Ileana is a liar. Ileana is a liar. The only question is when. When she pled guilty, or now?
Red Hook, N.Y.: It appears to me that Noel Fuster did not deny his father abused him. He never really denied it from what I saw last night. Where is his adamant denial?
Michael Kirk: Yes he did. I disagree. He strongly denied it in all kinds of ways, including over many six-hour sessions with Joseph and Laurie Braga as a 6-year-old child. The most he ever admitted, which we showed being extracted from him, is that maybe when he was asleep, his father had put his penis in Noel's mouth. And now, ever since then, including when he left the building, and talking to his mother, he has denied the allegation.
Camden, N.J.: How was Fuster able to wed a 15-year-old girl, and why wasn't he charged with statutory rape?
Michael Kirk: Well, she never charged him. And he contends that he believed that she was 22, and that it was not until he went to get the marriage license with Ileana, and she arrived with her mother, and the mother said that she would have to sign, that Ileana was underage, that Frank knew that his two-month courtship with Ileana was a relationship with a 15-year-old.
Cambridge, Mass: My comments? How can you claim any semblance of investigative journalism when you repeat Frank Fuster's ridiculous claim that his homicide conviction stemmed from an "accident." Public records in New York show that he was charged with TWO felonies, including depraved indifference to life! Did Frontline look at those records? Did they know that he was indicted for murder. An accident?! And shot that man with a rifle -- twice. And then he menaced the witness.
Shame on "Frontline."
Michael Kirk: Yes, obviously we read the charges against Frank Fuster. I've been a reporter and a producer for 30 years, and know that documents and charges and charge sheets and everything else are often more one-sided when used by police and prosecutors to file charges than they turn out to be when adjudicating the case. The question is not whether Frank Fuster committed this crime in New York or not. Its relevance to child molestation escapes me. Frank Fuster was charged with molesting 20 children in his house. The relevance of the involuntary manslaughter conviction, for the purposes of this story, is only to indicate why the panic spread about Fuster in the media, among the parents and the prosecutors. The evidence of his past crimes would never have been admitted in a court of law trying the molestation cases. And that's really what our program is about: Was justice done? Were Frank Fuster's civil liberties diminished as a result of an overzealous prosecution and community hysteria?
Augusta, Ga.: Mr. Kirk, I must say that I am appalled at American justice.
Why is it that all the "white" folks were released but the Cuban wasn't? As a veteran of 22 years I bow my head in shame.
Michael Kirk: It is true that inordinate numbers, in relative terms, of people convicted of crimes are people of color, or whatever the politically correct term is now. And there are well-documented factors associated with race, including lack of appropriate counsel, bias on juries, rush to judgment by police and authorities, racial profiling in the first instance, that contribute to this. Those factors in Miami, I think, were less relevant to Frank Fuster, a Cuban-American, than they might have been in other places. And I think the vast majority of people charged with multiple-victim sexual abuse in the vast majority of cases around the country, were white people.
Albuquerque, N.M.: Over the years there has been a public outcry over prosecutor's tactics to coerce defendant into false testimonies. In my opinion, the Fuster case has taken this tactics to the limit. I was sickened when I saw how these children were been interviewed. Has there been any civil suit against the prosecutors of this case? Can't we consider the prosecutor's tactics as child abuse?
Michael Kirk: Many people who have seen the program have reacted in a similar way to what happened to those children. There does seem to be no doubt that they were abused. The question that remains is by whom? By Frank Fuster or the prosecutors and psychologists? No civil lawsuits have been filed to date by those children.
Civil suits were filed, however, by the parents of those children by the major American corporation that owned the Country Walk housing development. That corporation settled with each family over each incident in the aftermath Fuster's conviction. The amount of money paid to these families was at least $1 million per child. The corporation was the Disney.
Novato, Calif.: If Ileana Fuster cannot be believed, if we can't know which of her stories is the true one, and if it was her testimony that clinched the prosecutor's case in Superior Court, how can any appellate court, in any state not agree to re-open Frank Fuster's case? My heart is heavy knowing that he remains in prison.
Thank you for this expose. If nothing else happens, it should ensure that Janet Reno is denied the Democratic candidacy for governor of Florida.
Michael Kirk: Thank you.
Those are the very issues that we tried to raise with the program. The fact is, as recently as I think three weeks ago, a magistrate in Florida denied another Frank Fuster appeal.
Toronto, Canada: What are the actual qualifications of the states' justice system? Should there be an authoritative panel, of highly educated forensic investigators available to help in these situations?
Rather than relying on the budget of the defense, the defense could use this panel to explain to the jury, interpret to the state, and the defense just what is and has happened.
Something better than justice is needed for the people caught in these situations!
Michael Kirk: Well, the theory is that in a democratic society, where the rule of law and the system of justice presumes innocence, that the burden would be on the state to prove guilt. And they would have to provide, beyond a reasonable doubt, expert testimony. And that system has been the cornerstone of American liberty. The question is whether in cases like Fuster, and others that "Frontline" has reported over the years, the system is flawed and needs to be reconsidered.
Alexandria, Va.: Did you get to talk to any of the jury members? I'd be interested to know how much they were influenced by Fuster's outburst during the trial. It certainly didn't help to mollify his image as a "monster."
Saint Janet's remarks were certainly amusing. If the young woman's (sorry, forgot her name) recollections are so untrustworthy, then why should we believe she told the truth during her testimony.
Michael Kirk: Clearly, the outburst in court did not help Frank Fuster's case.
And as to whether we should believe Ileana during the trial, that's the heart of the matter. As the adult eyewitness, her testimony, more than any other element of the "Miami Method," probably convicted Frank Fuster.
Former "Frontline" Fan: Why didn't you air any of the interviews you did with members of the CDC about the gonorrhea test? You said you spoke with them but the only information in the program about the unreliability of the test was from a defense attorney.
The gonorrhea test seems to me to be the most damning evidence in the case and your program glossed over it, mentioning it only once. Why?
Michael Kirk: An appeals court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, had found in the Grant Snowden appeal that the gonorrhea test in that case, taken at the same lab, performed by the same doctor, was unreliable. Noel Fuster's gonorrhea sample is subject to the same criticism, and the CDC and others have on the record, in the literature, testified to that fact, in addition to talking to "Frontline." Because the appeals court released Snowden based on the faulty gonorrhea evidence and the way the testimony was elicited from the children, we spent less time on those issues than what seemed to be the most important single moment in Fuster's case, which was his former wife Ileana's testimony against him.
Fremont, Calif.: I feel that Janet Reno is responsible for destroying many lives, including but not limited to the innocent people who were killed (murdered) in Waco and Ruby Ridge and now Mr. Snowden, Mr. Fuster and Ileana. Can Reno be held financially or criminally liable for her actions and their losses?
Michael Kirk: The answer is I don't know if Janet Reno can be held civilly responsible for her actions as a public official performing her duties. She can certainly be held responsible by the voters of Florida in the upcoming Democratic primary race for governor.
Arlington, Va.: Great work.
I assume that exposes on the wrongfully convicted are a core element of any investigative filmmaker's repertoire, so I wonder why you think prosecutors are so reluctant to admit that they made a mistake. Is it ego (I assume it requires a healthy ego to be a successful prosecutor)? Are they just be protective of the system -- i.e., turning the old maxim of "it's better for a guilty man to go free than for one innocent man to be imprisoned" on its head? On the latter point, in your experience, are you aware of any cases were a prosecutor admitted his error in a flawed conviction, and the result was a flood of frivolous appeals?
Michael Kirk: I don't know about a flood of frivolous appeals, but I do know the rare occurrence of a prosecutor admitting a flawed prosecution occurred just this week in Brooklyn, when Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project brought DNA evidence forward, which exculpated a young man in prison. And the prosecutor immediately, without even requiring the necessary filings from Scheck, released the young man, saying (at the least the way the New York Times reported it), that no person should spend one unnecessary minute in jail if evidence exists that they didn't commit the crime.
Colchester, Vt.: I am so glad that "Frontline" has finally thrown light on the Fuster/Country Walk case. I wrote about the case in my book, "Victims of Memory," along with many other cases of false allegations of sexual abuse based on "recovered memories" and suggestive interviewing of young children. Could you comment on other cases where innocent people remain in prison? For instance, Gerald Amirault and Bernard Baran in Massachusetts. Also, could you comment on how prosecutors such as Janet Reno and Scott Harshbarger built their illustrious careers on the bodies of such innocent people?
It is unfortunate but understandable that the "Frontline" show didn't go into detail about Frank Fuster's first molestation conviction. I interviewed him about it and included a long footnote on it in "Victims of Memory." I don't think he was guilty of that, either. Did you ask him about it and then just not have room for it in the program? --Mark Pendergrast
Michael Kirk: It's certainly true that these cases helped build Janet Reno's reputation, or at least bring her to the attention of Bill and Hillary Clinton (it augmented her well-known interest in child issues). Scott Harshbarger, who prosecuted the Amiraults in Massachusetts, is now head of Common Cause and continues to believe in the guilt of Gerald Amirault, and presumably other members of the Amirault family.
We didn't explore, inside the body of the television program, the facts surrounding the molestation charge for which Frank was convicted, for the same reasons we didn't spend much time on the involuntary manslaughter charge. Which is, while they are inflammatory and no doubt contributory to the community feeling about Fuster and the media's impulse to consider him a monster, it doesn't really have standing in the factual question of whether he sexually assaulted these children at Country Walk.
Washington, D.C.: What happened to the children who were interviewed for the trial? Could it be poetic justice that he is now being punished because he got away with child molestation before? I think Mr. Fuster was a likely suspect and subsequently accused because to me, he seems to show a propensity for child molestation. There is something disturbing about a 34-year-old man who marries a 15-year-old girl. Overall, I think he is not guilty of what he was charged with in Florida, based upon "Frontline's" investigation. Injustice for one person amounts to injustice for all.
Michael Kirk: Marrying a 15-year-old with her mother's consent is not against the law. There were no charges for statutory rape. And they are in no way relevant to the molestation case. However, Fuster himself admitted during his interview with Frontline that he had not led a perfect life. But his allegation is, he should not be serving 165 years for those imperfections.
New York, N.Y.: I don't know if you are aware of this, but the guilty plea that Ileana offered in court prior to testifying against Fuster would not have been accepted in any court in any state at any time other than in that courtroom in Florida at that time. In all my years of practicing law, I have never heard anything like that. A plea is supposed to be unequivocal and often it is required that the person taking the plea provide details of the crime. I'd think that weighs in favor of Ileana's statements that the abuse did not happen and her seeming catatonic state weighs in favor of the methods used on her to make her provide that testimony, don't you think?
Michael Kirk: Well, we included that piece of videotape because it certainly raises the very questions you highlight. It is in that respect very different than reading a transcript or a magazine or newspaper article about this case. Television can show the halting manner of a defendant like Ileana at that moment, helping viewers to form conclusions about what they really believe happened in this case.
Burton, Mich.: Where is Robert Rosenthal from? And does he have an e-mail address or phone number where his office can be contacted?
Michael Kirk: He is from New York City.
Reality, USA: Hey Michael,
I don't believe that you and the other "Frontline" investigators actually investigated anything in this case beyond asking defense attorneys and people sympathetic to Fuster. Moreover, the interview with Janet Reno was clearly hacked apart by video editing. What did you actually ask her, and why did you feel the need to overdub the interview later?
Michael Kirk: Thank you for your skepticism. It is also in my nature to be skeptical of things I'm told. Which is why I do what I do for a living, and investigated the government's role in prosecuting Frank Fuster, Grant Snowden and Bobby Fijnje. I take exception to your allegation that we didn't investigate this case. Members of our team have worked on this story, on and off, for four years. As to our handling of the Janet Reno interview, there was no overdubbing involved. Anything that was edited out was the usual equivocation from a public official reluctant to talk about their performance in office.
Boston, Mass.: So Mr. Kirk, what's the answer to your own question -- Do you think justice was done?
Michael Kirk: Clearly, we would not have made this film if we didn't think a question marked belonged at the end of the sentence. There are serious questions about what happened in Miami during these years that need to be discussed in the cool, calm light of day. If our broadcast can help achieve a dispassionate airing of the way evidence was gathered and a conviction achieved, whichever way the question is ultimately answered, then "Frontline" has done its job.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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