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Margaret Kelly Michaels Trial and Appeal: 1987 & 1993

From Questions To Indictments, Michaels On Trial, A Legal Rescue, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Margaret Kelly Michaels
Crimes Charged: Aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of children, and terroristic threats
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harvey Meltzer and Robert Clark
Chief Prosecutors: Glenn Goldberg and Sara Sencer McArdle
Judge: William A. Harth
Chief Lawyers for Appeal: Morton Stavis and William Kunstler
Chief Prosecutor: Clifford Minor
Place: Newark, New Jersey
Dates of Trial: June 22, 1987-April 15, 1988
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 47 years imprisonment (5 years served)
Date of Appeals Court Decision: March 26, 1993
Decision: Verdict overturned on the basis that the defendant received an unfair trial

SIGNIFICANCE: The reversal of Kelly Michaels's conviction on appeal reflected a concern with the techniques used to obtain testimony from the young children in this sexual abuse case—an issue raised in other highly publicized abuse trials.

During the 1980s, the Unites States saw a wave of sensational trials involving alleged sexual abuse of children at day-care centers and preschools. The press reported often-lurid charges of bizarre sexual practices committed by daycare workers against toddlers. One child or parent's charge of abuse often snowballed into dozens. Sometimes the allegations involved satanic worship and the ritualistic slaughter of animals. In many cases, prosecutors had little or no physical evidence—just the testimony of small children, some of whom seemed quite loving toward their supposed abusers.

Critics believed the defendants were accused on the flimsiest of evidence, and that young witnesses were coaxed and coached by parents, prosecutors, and child abuse experts. They were concerned that the alleged crimes had no basis in reality. Some journalists and defense lawyers compared the sexual abuse cases to the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

In 1985, Margaret Kelly Michaels found herself trapped in one of these controversial cases. The year before, Michaels had taken a job at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey. An aspiring actress, Michaels had always considered the job temporary, and she left Wee Care the following April. She had been considered a good employee, earning a promotion and working well with the children. But a few days after Michaels's departure, suspicions arose about her conduct at the nursery.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988