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Kern Case That Brought 1,000 Year Sentences Thrown Out

August 14, 1996

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) _ A judge threw out the child molestation convictions of two couples, 14 years after they went to prison during a wave of cases alleging child abuse, devil worship and baby sacrifices in their central California county.

Children had claimed that as many as 80 adults participated in molestations, devil worship and sacrifices of 29 babies. Authorities searching for bodies dug up one couple’s back yard and dragged two lakes.

The couples whose convictions were thrown out Monday, Scott and Brenda Kniffen and Alvin and Deborah McCuan, had been sentenced to a combined 1,000 years behind bars.

But some children _ including two of the Kniffens’ sons _ later said they were pressured by social workers, sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors to say they had been molested.

Including the two couples, convictions have been now dismissed for 18 of 26 people found guilty in eight Kern County molestation cases tried during the early and mid 1980s.

In Monday’s hearing, ordered by the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal, Kern County Superior Court Judge Jon Stuebbe ruled that authorities had repeatedly asked the couples’ children leading questions.

``It is apparent to this court that the result of the interviewing techniques used in this case was to render fundamentally unreliable the children’s testimony at trial,″ Stuebbe wrote.

The judge said the suggestive questioning included ``telling the child that reports of abuse would help their parents and they could all go home and live together again.″

The couples won’t be retried, in part because so many years have passed and because the Kniffens’ sons have changed their testimony, Deputy District Attorney Collette Humphrey said.

The Kniffens had been brought to Bakersfield for Monday’s hearing and were released Tuesday, but the McCuans apparently were still in prisons elsewhere in the state, the Kern County District Attorney’s office said.

In previous cases, the appellate court has said former deputy District Attorney Andrew Gindes committed ``gross misconduct″ during his prosecutions, motivated by a ``blind quest to convict.″

Gindes also was the lead prosecutor in the 1984 Kniffen-McCuan trial.

A 1986 report by then-state Attorney General John Van de Kamp also criticized sheriff’s investigators for suggestive questioning that led children to give answers authorities wanted.

In Monday’s ruling, Stuebbe stressed that he did not mean to imply that there were no molestations or that he found credible the Kniffen boys’ current statements that they were not molested.

``The Kniffen boys themselves have changed their stories so many times, both before and after adulthood, both orally and in writing,″ he said, ``that present testimony is found to be an undecipherable mix of memory, wish, remorse and guilt.″

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