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Day-care Sexual Abuse Trial Turns to Physicians’ Testimony

December 9, 1991 GMT

FARMVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ For 16 weeks, the fate of a day-care center owner charged with sexually abusing 22 children hinged on the word of youthful accusers.

Now the case takes a turn as physicians offer evidence that children from the Little Rascals Day Care Center may have been sexually abused.

Since mid-August, 12 children and their relatives and friends have testified in the trial of Robert F. Kelly Jr.

Kelly is charged with 183 counts of sexually abusing children at the day- care center between June 1986 and April 1989. Kelly and his wife, Elizabeth, owned the center in Edenton, about 120 miles east of Raleigh. Mrs. Kelly and five others are charged with sexual abuse and face separate trials.

Kelly has pleaded innocent to all charges.

Neither side will say on the record how long their presentations will take. Deputy Attorney General Bill Hart speculated earlier this fall that the prosecution case might take until February. The trial is to be in recess for Christmas and New Year’s weeks. The case so far has cost the state more than $800,000.

The case is sometimes compared to California’s McMartin Pre-School child molestation case, which stretched over seven years, counting a lengthy pre- trial hearing as well as the trial, and cost more than $13.5 million. It was the nation’s longest, costliest criminal prosecution. In the end, no one was convicted; charges against one remaining defendant were dropped last year after his second trial ended in a mistrial.

Testifying Monday was Desmond Runyon, director of the Child Medical Evaluation Program and head of a child abuse clinic at University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Each side offered a different view of the testimony to date.

″There are some people who said we could have stopped after the first child testified,″ District Attorney H.P. Williams Jr. said.

″There is a dramatic distinction between the children’s testimony on direct examination by the district attorney and in cross-examination by the defense,″ defense attorney Jeffrey Miller said.

When questioned by prosecutors, the children have responded directly to questions about alleged abuse. When cross-examined by defense lawyers, the children veered from recounting abuse to stories that included tales about sharks that could be released and recaptured, animal sacrifices and wild animals that rode with them in Kelly’s truck.

Many mothers have testified clearly for the prosecution, some using notebooks they kept. On cross-examination, the women frequently became vague as defense attorneys tried to trace the source of their testimony.

Miller wouldn’t comment on the case’s progress, nor would he say whether Kelly will testify.

Williams said he was pleased with the children’s testimony.

″The children have done an excellent job,″ Williams said. ″They have withstood vigorous, lengthy cross-examination and they have consistently told the same story, both back then when they first disclosed and here on the stand.″

The first medical evidence was presented Tuesday, when Dr. Jean Smith testified that a 5-year-old girl she examined in 1989 had a hymen with unnatural adhesions. The girl said Kelly touched her. The physician said two other children showed signs of sexual penetration, and three others didn’t. More doctors are expected to testify.

So far, 12 children and dozens of parents and relatives have taken the stand. Prosecutors won’t say if more will be called.

Kelly’s trial was moved from Edenton to Farmville, about 90 miles away, because of extensive pretrial publicity.