Remembering the Dale Akiki Case

The San Diego jury did its job in acquitting a church nursery school volunteer of Satanic ritual abuse.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

On this day in 1993, a jury of his peers acquitted Dale Akiki, a volunteer nursery school assistant at his church, of charges of child abuse and kidnapping. I guess that means justice was done. Except that it wasn't. Dale Akiki should never have been tried in the first place. He spent 2 ½ years in jail awaiting trial. And while he later filed a civil case against the County of San Diego and others, which settled for $2 million, things still don't seem right.

But let me back up for a minute. When daycare moral panic of the 1980s hit, I didn't have any trouble keeping my head. Many of the allegations of sexual and Satanic ritual abuse were obviously false. Sometimes they were utterly fantastic—like the allegations of the McMartin Preschool children that they rode in hot-air balloons, saw witches flying through the air, and were taken through underground tunnels beneath the preschool. I remember people saying, "Children don't lie about these things" (apparently meaning sexual abuse, not witches and hot-air balloons). But that's a joke. Children lie about everything, especially when they think they are telling adults what they want to hear.

Then came the Dale Akiki case. Despite my earlier skepticism, when I first saw the local television coverage of the Dale Akiki trial here in San Diego, my initial kneejerk reaction was (to my great shame), "Good grief, they finally got one." Why? Because Dale Akiki was unusual looking. He was born with Noonan syndrome, a congenital disorder that sometimes results in a large head and drooping eyelids and a number of other developmental problems. Also the television crew held the camera a sharp angle (the "Dutch angle"), so as to emphasize his unusual appearance. I was an idiot.

But not for long. When the local news reported on the prosecution's evidence the following day, it was not very impressive. I thought to myself, "Well … maybe they'll get to the real evidence tomorrow." But they didn't. And the next day was no better. Eventually, the prosecution rested. They didn't have anything on this poor guy—just a bunch of implausible accusations by nursery school children who had been prodded into making accusations by therapists who were obviously convinced beforehand that Akiki was a monster. The children accused him of bringing an elephant and a giraffe to class, killing them as a warning to the children not to tattle. They also accused him of dunking them in toilets, drinking blood, and killing a human baby. Although Dale Akiki did not have a driver's license, they accused him of taking them hither and yon. Sheesh. Fortunately, there was evidence of therapists' coaching in the form of videos of the interrogations.

I was terrified that the jury would convict. But, unlike the juries in some of the other daycare cases, the 12 San Diegans on that jury did their job right. Bless them.

Why did the District Attorney even allow a case to go forward, despite recommendations to the contrary from prosecutors experienced in child abuse cases? For one thing, he was being pressured by Jack Goodall, then-CEO of Jack-in-the-Box. Convinced of Akiki's guilt, Goodall—a contributor to the D.A.'s campaign—urged him to assign the case to a different prosecutor. (Yes, that sort of thing happens in America. Rich guys really can make phone calls sometimes.) The job of prosecuting Akiki went to Mary Avery, who was the founder of the San Diego Child Abuse Foundation. Goodall and his wife were the largest financial contributors to that organization.

By the way, San Diego voters did their job right too. The D.A. lost re-election in 1994, largely due to the Akiki case.

But here's the part of the story I like best: During his incarceration, the deputies at the jail got to know Dale Akiki. They thought he was a sweetheart of a guy, and they knew intuitively that he was being treated unfairly. Twenty of them pooled their resources and had a limo ready to take him from the courthouse on the day of his acquittal.

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