`Recovered' memory's use in court is debated

Sexual-abuse allegations made against educator

Psychological validity at issue

December 15, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt and Sara Neufeld | Laura Barnhardt and Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

As parents of pupils at McCormick Elementary School in Rosedale received letters yesterday about the absence of a principal accused of sexually assaulting two pupils in the late 1970s, experts in law and psychology said the case might highlight issues arising from "recovered" memories.

Kevin M. Lindsey, 50, is accused of sexually assaulting two sisters more than two decades ago while he was a teacher at Pine Grove Elementary School in Carney. Both women say they recently remembered being assaulted, according to police charging documents.

The reliability of recovered memories remains controversial among scientists and psychologists and continues to be debated in courtrooms, experts say.

"The idea you could repress a memory is a quaint, romantic notion that first surfaced in romance novels in the 19th century. ... There's no sound proof that this happens to real people in real life," said Dr. Harrison G. Pope, chief of the biological psychiatry lab at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

"Within the scientific community, you'll find a huge range of views," said Dan Reisberg, professor of psychology at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He said some academics argue that recovered memories are not reliable, while others say they can be.

"By now, most police are alert to the issue," he said. "On one side, you want to take the accusations seriously, but you also need to be wary."

Elizabeth Loftus, a nationally recognized expert on memory and a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California-Irvine, said the Baltimore County principal's case could be complicated by the fact that there are two alleged victims.

"It's he said-they said," said Loftus. But, she said, "I've certainly seen situations where a number of people, when exposed to the right suggestion, can form a false belief or memory."

Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University and a recognized expert on memory, said: "No one can prove a recovered memory is false ... but those people have a heavy burden proving those cases, given that we've seen an epidemic of false charges based on recovered memory."

Baltimore County police said yesterday they consulted with the county state's attorney's office before filing charges against Lindsey. Lindsey, of the first block of Glenn Falls Path in Sparks, is charged with two counts of child abuse, two counts of second-degree sex offense and one count of third-degree sex offense.

Lindsey, who according to court records taught at Pine Grove from 1976 until 1980 and has been employed by the county school system for 29 years, denied the allegations, the charging documents state. His lawyer, Gerald C. Ruter, said that Lindsey, who has been placed on paid administrative leave, is being falsely accused.

Ruter also said that cases like Lindsey's concern him "because quite frankly there's a conflict in the scientific community of the validity of this repressed memory syndrome."

Attempts to reach Lindsey for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

One of the accusers, a woman who is now 35 years old, told police that she had recently recovered a "new memory" of a sexual assault from when she was in fourth grade at Pine Grove in 1979, according to the court papers. She told police she had been sexually assaulted by Lindsey, then a teacher, during the school day in an empty gym, according to the court documents. She told her husband that she had been abused, and he contacted police in August.

Her sister, now 34, told police in September that Lindsey had assaulted her in a school bathroom when she was in his second-grade class at Pine Grove in 1977, according to the charging documents. She said that she had been in therapy because "she knew something had happened but never knew what it was" and that she had been praying when the "memory came to her," the court papers show.

The Sun does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.

In charging documents filed in District Court in Towson, police say Lindsey said that one of the alleged victims called him to confront him about her memory of an assault, which he denied.

Lindsey also twice requested that detectives give him a polygraph, or lie detector test, although the police do not say in the charging documents whether one was administered and would not discuss evidence against the former principal yesterday.

Ruter, Lindsey's lawyer, also declined to comment on whether the test, which is not admissible as evidence in court, was administered by police.

Russ Holmes, who retired in July as principal of Colgate Elementary School in eastern Baltimore County, said he taught with Lindsey at Pine Grove in the late 1970s and was shocked by the allegations. "He had high expectations of children," Holmes said. "They loved him."

Several parents and grandparents outside McCormick Elementary as school let out yesterday said they're having trouble believing the allegations.

"The couple of times that I met him, it seemed to me he was a pretty nice guy," said James Wilson, who was picking up his 5-year-old grandson, Ahmad.

A letter was sent home yesterday to parents of McCormick's 480 pupils by Nellie Slater, acting principal, "to notify you that Principal Kevin Lindsey is on administrative leave until further notice."

"We will keep our focus on the instructional program and on the academic achievement and well-being of our children," the letter said. "This is now a matter for the police; we are not able to provide you with additional information at this time."

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