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Preface

Mr. Madrid and his colleagues were published in the California Lawyer Magazine in September 1990 issue under Law & Motion - Legal News and Trends. Mr. Madrid and his colleagues handled a civil rights case involving 4 plaintiffs who were wrongfully charged and prosecuted on 19 felony counts of child molestation. After successfully defending and having the criminal case dismissed, Mr. Madrid and his colleagues filed a civil rights lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles. The case caption was Valentin v. County of Los Angeles L.A.S.C. No. C 529 739.
After a bifurcated bench trial in 1990, the Court awarded the plaintiffs 3.7 Million dollars in damages plus 2.0 Million dollars in attorneys' fees. The case was appealed and reversed by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that the trial court did not exercise its discretion in relieving the County from their jury waiver.
In 1995, the case was tried to a jury. The jury awarded the plaintiffs, 7.4 Million dollars plus 3.7 Million dollars in attorneys' fees for a total of 11.1 Million dollars. The County appealed. The case was affirmed on liability and reversed for a retrial on damages.

In 1999 at the start of the third trial, both Mr. Madrid and attorneys for the county filed Writs of Mandate with the Court of Appeals challenging certain pretrial rulings. The trial was stayed. The Court of Appeal ordered issuance of a writ of mandate directing the trial court to vacate its orders and to enter a certain new and different orders. The opinion was published. County of Los Angeles v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County (Valentin) (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 212, 92 Cal.Rptr.2d 668.

In June of 2000 on the eve of the restart of the third trial, the case was settled as to Mr. Madrid & Mr. Roman's clients. From the date of the arrest to the date of the settlement, the case ran its course for 16 years and 2 months.

AND NOW THE REVENGE:
A Los Angeles court awards millions to former defendants accused of child molestation

Article by Mary A. Fisher

The first wave of child sex abuse prosecutions appears to have run its course with Raymond Buckey's second mistrial in the McMartin Preschool case. Now come the revenge. In suing the county, the former district attorney and even a news reporter, Buckey is following the lead of other exonerated accused seeking compensation for having their lives destroyed by unproven charges.

Most of the suits like Buckey's have been thrown out before trial. But earlier this year, in apparently the first case of its kind, a Los Angeles judge awarded more than $3 million to four people who had been arrested for allegedly molesting neighborhood children. The charges were dismissed after a preliminary hearing. Valentin v. County of Los Angeles, LA Super Ct, No. C529739.

The judgment holding the county liable for false arrest, false imprisonment and civil rights violations seems to have surprised everyone except the plaintiff's lawyers, who were also the defense lawyers in the criminal action. "Everyone told us we didn't have a case," says Eduardo M. Madrid of the City of Industry, who represented one of the plaintiffs. Madrid says one lawyer for the county told him when he first filed the suit, "We're bulletproof, we have immunity, you have no case, go home."

"It's the first inroad that is likely to have a psychological impact on other cases," says Jim Quinn, one of the lawyers representing former McMartin Preschool defendants Peggy Buckey, Virginia McMartin and Peggy Ann Buckey. "Its significance is in signaling police departments to be more careful in not jumping the gun and ruining the lives of people unmercifully."

The Valentin judgment is being appealed, and recent rulings indicate that the courts give great leeway to prosecutors and witnesses in child sex abuse cases. But the lawyers for the Valentin plaintiffs have overcome the odds before. "It was such a long haul," says Madrid.

The long haul began in 1984 when 11 children living on Planter Street in Pico Rivera told their parents they had been sexually molested by some neighbors. The children, ages three to nine, said they were tied down, photographed nude, sodomized and orally copulated. They said all this took place in the home of Jose Valentin, a sanitation worker at Oroweat Bakery, and his wife, Myrna Malave, a nurse; and in the home of law student Tim O'Keefe and his wife, Helen, a real estate appraiser.

Scared and outraged parents called authorities, who came out to Planter Street to investigate. "There was a lot of hot talk," Lieutenant Jim Moss of the sheriff's department told a reporter at the time. At least one of the parents had threatened to go after the suspects with a shotgun. "Once people realized law enforcement was taking over," said Moss, "they calmed down a lot."

The investigation began on a Tuesday; by Friday, after hearing the children's stories, sheriff's deputies had obtained search warrants. While waiting for the warrants to arrive, the deputies called Deputy District Attorney Robert Z. Corrado, who came to the street to advise them. The O'Keefes later testified that Corrado told them, "If you don't start talking I'm going to fuck up your lives without mercy."

The suspects were arrested solely on the basis of the children's statements.

While testifying at the preliminary hearing two months later, the prosecution's key witness, an eight-year-old boy, started crying and admitted he "had made it all up" about Jose Valentin. "That often happens to young children on the stand," says Kevin C. Brazile, the deputy county counsel who represented Los Angeles County in the civil suit. "These kids still stand by their stories today that they were molested."

With the children's testimony discredited, Municipal Court Judge Patricia J. Hofstetter said she was "left with the choice only of dismissing the case."

At a lunch following the dismissal, the defense lawyers and their clients toasted a bittersweet victory. Both couples had sold their homes and borrowed money to pay bail. Collectively the defendants had spent more than three months in jail.

Helen O'Keefe was fired from her job, although she got it back after the preliminary hearing. All four former defendants continue to suffer psychologically. Myrna Malave is on psychiatric disability, says her attorney, Robert Roman of Norwalk. "She doesn't drive the streets because she's afraid of the police," Roman says. "She's afraid this could happen again."

"To say they were humiliated is an understatement," adds Peter M. Gwosdof of Anaheim, Helen O'Keefe's attorney. "Most of them had never even had a traffic ticket, let alone seen the inside of a jail."

Although none of the attorneys had any experience in civil rights litigation and all were sole practitioners, they decided to sue. Their complaint named 60 defendants, including the county, sheriff's deputies, the alleged victims and their parents, Corrado and Deputy DA Brain Wooldrige, who prosecuted the case. The parents' insurers settled before trial for their policy limits, but the government defendants were confident they were immune.

"The county kept telling us that they were going to beat us on a summary judgment and that we didn't have a case," says Madrid.

The lawyers, who were awarded about $2 million in attorneys fees, credit tactical decisions for their success. The first was waiving a jury. In child molestation cases, jurors "might think where there's smoke, there's fire," said Morton Minikes of Los Angeles, who represented Tim O'Keefe. Minikes says a judge is less likely to be swayed by the emotional nature of the charges.

Although Judge J. Kimball Walker quickly dismissed the claims for malicious prosecution, citing the nearly absolute immunity afforded prosecutors, he was open to many of the plaintiff's novel arguments. For example, he did not recognize Corrado's claim of immunity for the civil rights and false arrest causes of action. The plaintiffs argued that Corrado's conduct was outside his normal prosecutorial duties. "He acted more as a police officer than an advocate for the state by going out to the houses, interviewing the kids and directing traffic for the officers," says Minikes. "Therefore he was no longer protected by absolute immunity."

The U. S. Supreme Court during the upcoming term will consider the scope of prosecutorial immunity. One issue before the court is whether a prosecutor is immune for legal advice given to police officers during an investigation. Burns v. Reed, No. 89-1715.

Corrado, now in private practice in Fullerton, insists he never ordered the arrests of the suspects and denies threatening to destroy the O'Keefs' lives. "I'm not a bad guy. I never said that," he maintains. "They have it confused with another time when Pete Gwosdof and I yelled at each other." In his 1985 deposition, however, Corrado admitted, "I might have uttered it under my breath." Judge Walker called the threat "oppressive conduct" and ordered Corrado to pay $60,000 in punitive damages.

To impose liability for the arresting officers conduct the plaintiffs needed to show the arrests and been made without probable cause. Rather than discuss the statements of the children or the legal advice provided by Corrado, the plaintiffs' attorneys say they decided to stick with the criteria established by the leading case in the area. According to People v. Ramey (1976) 16 C3d 263, an officer can enter a home to make a warrantless arrest only under exigent circumstances. The plaintiff's case was based on proving there were no exigent circumstances.

They called all the sheriff's deputy defendants as adverse witnesses. "We took the teeth out of the lion's mouth by examining their witnesses first," says Madrid. "That's one thing they weren't expecting."

Each deputy was asked if he or she was familiar with Ramey, explains Madrid, and all said yes. "Since each deputy admitted no one was trying to flee and no evidence or property was in danger of being destroyed, we established that these guys knew the law but still didn't follow it," Madrid says. "That's how we got them on illegal entry."

Despite the verdict, county counsel Brazile says, "The judge doesn't know the law on probable cause, which is why I think we have a very good shot on the appeal." He is relying in part on the citizen-victim informant doctrine, which says that statements from an alleged victim that a crime has occurred provide probable cause for an arrest. "It may not be enough for a conviction, but it sure is sufficient for an arrest," Brazile says. In a recent molestation case, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said the uncorroborated testimony of a four-year-old is enough for a conviction. People v. Harlan, 90 Daily Journal DAR 8359.

Other cases indicate that the California judiciary is sympathetic to the prosecution in child molestation cases. The state Supreme Court recently upheld some child sex abuse convictions even though no specific dates were given for the offenses. People v. Jones, 90 Daily Journal DAR 7663. And the Second District Court of Appeal applied a prosecutor's absolute immunity to a social worker investigating alleged child molestation. Alicia T. v. County of Los Angeles, 90 Daily Journal DAR 8303.

But Madrid, who has met with the lawyers handling the McMartin civil suits and others, remains optimistic. "Sure, immunity isn't easy to get around, but I see it as a hurdle that can be overcome," he says. "It's like the unpopular guy who wants to take out the prom queen and everybody says, 'Forget it'. He'll never find out if he doesn't ask."

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