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Margaret Kelly Michaels Trial and Appeal: 1987 & 1993

A Legal Rescue

A number of journalists chronicled the Michaels trial and the controversy that surrounded sexual abuse cases such as hers. One of these reporters was Dorothy Rabinowitz. She wrote a lengthy article for Harper's magazine detailing some of the more questionable tactics used by the prosecution against Michaels. The article caught the attention of Morton Stavis, a founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Working pro bono, Stavis and a team of law students prepared an appeal for Michaels.

Stavis died in December 1992 before completing the appeal motion. Well-Known defense lawyer William Kunstler then took over the case. The appellate brief raised nine points. These included arguments that Michaels was denied due process, since defense experts could not question the children; that Eileen Treacy's testimony was not scientifically sound; and that the questioning of the children was suggestive and coercive.

On March 26, 1993, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey overturned Michaels's conviction. The three-judge panel ruled that Treacy's testimony about Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome was improperly used by the prosecution. The judges also criticized Judge Harth for his actions during the children's testimony, during which he had sat some of them on his lap, whispered in their ears, and played ball with them. The appellate judges said, "The required atmosphere of the bench's impartiality was lost in this trial."

Michaels was released on bail on March 30, but her case was not over. Essex County Prosecutor Clifford Minor asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to consider an appeal of the appellate decision. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, 45 social scientists backed the defense assertion that the children's testimony against Michaels was unreliable.

On June 24, 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the appellate decision, agreeing that the "interrogations that occurred in this case were improper and there is a substantial likelihood that the evidence derived from them is unreliable." The court also said that prosecutors would have to show "clear and convincing evidence" that the questioning methods had produced reliable testimony before asking for a possible retrial. In December 1994, prosecutor Minor decided against a retrial.

Margaret Kelly Michaels has joined a number of other defendants in child sexual abuse cases who have been acquitted or had convictions overturned—but only after suffering years of public personal agony.

Michael Burgan

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fasion, Seth. "Child-Abuse Conviction of Woman is Overturned." New York Times (March 27, 1993): 26.

Gray, Jerry. "Trenton Court Assails '88 Trial of Day-Care Aide." New, York Times (June 24, 1994): B5.

Nathan, Debbie and Michael Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Wlitch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Rabinowitz, Dorothy. "From the Mouth of Babes to a Jail Cell." Harper's (May 1990): 52-63.

Sanderson, Bill. "Day-Care Abuse Case Dropped." The Record (December 3, 1994): Al.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Margaret Kelly Michaels Trial and Appeal: 1987 1993 - From Questions To Indictments, Michaels On Trial, A Legal Rescue, Suggestions For Further Reading