'We all did some learning,' Craig says of ordeal Criticism voiced about the way the child sexual abuse case was handled.

April 10, 1991|By Norris West and Alisa Samuels | Norris West and Alisa Samuels,Evening Sun Staff

Michael S. Craig took the "for better or for worse" in his marriage vows seriously.

He has stood beside his wife for 24 years, including the past five as Sandra Ann Craig hurtled through Maryland's judicial system, dogged by charges of child sexual abuse.

"It's brought us close together," Michael Craig was saying yesterday, the day after his wife's 1987 conviction was thrown out by a higher court for the second time in two years. The couple was interviewed in the Baltimore office of attorney William H. Murphy Jr.

"We've always had a good relationship to begin with," Michael Craig said. "It solidified us. It hurts when I see this happen, because I know my wife better than anybody. I know she couldn't do the things they were accusing her of doing."

Sandra Craig was accused of molesting children at her former Clarksville day-care center. She was convicted in 1987 on charges of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl and sentenced to 10 years in prison. On Monday, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed that conviction for the second time, ruling that she had not received a fair trial because a Circuit Court judge violated procedures.

The state's highest court said a Howard County Circuit Court judge should have interviewed witnesses, ages 4 to 7 years, at the time, to determine whether they were able to testify in the courtroom without facing emotional distress before allowing them to give testimony on closed-circuit television. It ordered a new Circuit Court trial for Craig.

That decision was sweet music to her ears. However, she said, "I can't blame anyone, because that means I would be judging.

"I would say, that out of this we all did some learning" about how child-abuse cases should be handled, said Craig, dressed fashionably in a black skirt set, and a bit tired from all the interviews.

Michael and Sandra Craig had come to Baltimore yesterday for a news conference on the Court of Appeals' decision. She said they would return immediately to their home in New Jersey, because he had to work.

She said the trial and publicity have "done some serious damages in my family and to the trust I had in people."

Sandra Craig described the ordeal this way: "It was sad. It was like living and walking through a nightmare and I was yelling for help and nobody heard."

Recalling days in court, she said: "I was sitting there listening to the state's attorney. He was saying all those horrible things about what had happened to the children and I didn't realize he was talking about me, because I said, 'Boy, what a horrible person.'

"And then, all of a sudden, he pointed to me and said, 'You're the one who did it,' " she said.

County prosecutors say they have not decided whether to retry the case. They said their decision will depend heavily on the feelings of the children allegedly abused.

Michael Craig said he had mixed feelings about going through a new trial. On one hand, an acquittal by a jury would completely vindicate his wife, he said. On the other, he added, it would add to his family's debt that has resulted from the ordeal.

Murphy said he is prepared for a retrial. He said it is unlikely that prosecutors would be able to argue for closed-circuit testimony because the children are four years older now and the defense has more evidence to support its case.

His co-counsel, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said Craig's case never should have been tried in the first place and attributed the charges to hysteria over child abuse at the time. "That was a time when these kind of cases steam-rolled across the country," she said.

Sandra Craig maintained yesterday that she did not assault any children but that she has suffered a great deal because of the allegations.

"You have to pay for your innocence," she said. "Everything we'd accumulated is gone. We're struggling now to keep a roof over our heads."

On Oct. 16, 1986, when a Howard County grand jury charged her with child abuse, first- and second-degree sexual offense, perverted practice, and assault and battery, the family owned Craig's Country Pre-School and a house in Columbia. Michael worked as a database administrator for a company that contracted with the federal government.

But, as the cases progressed, even before the 1987 conviction, legal bills started to mount and Michael was finding that his clients were affected by the publicity. Eventually, loans on both their home and the day-care center property -- which was closed by state health officials in 1986 -- were foreclosed.

After the sentencing, the family moved to New Jersey and now lives in a rented house in Newark. Although the Craigs didn't provide a total figure for their legal debt, legal fees for the Circuit Court defense alone ran more than $200,000, Michael Craig said.

Life in New Jersey is "not too exciting," Sandra Craig said. "I'm a homemaker now. I'm not working. . . . I'm just trying to take care of my family and that's it."

Her husband said he envisions a day when his wife's case is completely cleared and they can pay off their debts and move back to Maryland because they liked the area.

"I would like to own a house again," he said.

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