Witnesses, jurors, lawyers mass for sexual-abuse trial

July 22, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

FARMVILLE, N.C. -- Farmville's only courtroom has never played host to a felony trial. This week, the town's 4,000 residents will watch a parade of jurors, lawyers, psychologists, parents and children converge on that courtroom. There, they will unfold what may be the largest child sexual abuse trial this country has ever seen: the trial of Robert F. Kelly Jr. of Edenton.

The trial was moved to this one-blink community in Pitt County, 65 miles west of Edenton in Eastern North Carolina, because of pretrial publicity.

But the spotlight will find Farmville, if not for the unprecedented number of sexual abuse indictments, then for the sordid nature of the charges. And if not for that, then for the impact the trial -- expected to last three to four months -- could have on future large-scale child-abuse prosecutions.

Jury selection is scheduled to start today and is expected to take about a week. About 1,200 jury notices were sent out to Pitt County residents, compared with about 200 in most Superior Court cases.

Mr. Kelly, 43, former owner of the Little Rascals day care center, has pleaded not guilty to 248 charges of sexually abusing more than two dozen children. He has been in jail two years, unable to post a $1.5 million bond. Six other defendants, whose trials have not been scheduled, face about 200 additional charges.

Parents allege that over three years, Mr. Kelly raped children, forced children to have sex with one another and had sex with day-care workers in front of children.

"We're dealing with a subject people have a hard time with," says Patty Toth of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. "Even people who work in this area have a hard time facing the reality of this [type of] crime. It's almost easier to believe it didn't happen."

The case is particularly important because it follows last year's highly publicized McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The McMartin case, which involved 52 charges against two defendants, became the longest and most expensive trial in U.S. history, lasting three years and ringing up a $15 million bill for taxpayers.

The McMartin defendants were acquitted, using the classic argument that young children are unreliable witnesses.

To prepare for this trial, special prosecutor William Hart of the North Carolina attorney general's office has traveled around the country, consulting with other child-abuse prosecutors to learn why their cases failed or succeeded.

In McMartin, the state's case was hurt because children were interviewed in groups and all by the same therapist. Little Rascals prosecutors have interviewed children separately, have used a variety of therapists and have tried to keep parents from talking to one another about evidence.

Mr. Hart will not discuss the evidence. He says children now between the ages of 5 and 9 are expected to testify about allegations of abuses occurring when they were 3 to 6 years old. He will not say whether the state has any physical evidence.

Mr. Kelly's attorney, Michael Spivey of Greenville, N.C., says his client has never been given details of the allegations, such as where and when the acts are supposed to have occurred. The indictments do not specify those details.

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