Devil's Advocate

What would a lawyer do to clear his client of child sex abuse charges?

Day was dawning on December 23, 2005, and the wooded reservation land surrounding Lower Red Lake was wintry and still. In a small house just a few feet from the lake's rocky southern shore, 19-year-old Daniel Jourdain, worn out from a day spent counseling drug users and alcoholics, lay in bed beside his two-year-old son, soundly asleep.

He awoke to a swarm of federal agents—the sign of a serious criminal matter on an Indian reservation—all guns and vests and urgent commands. They put him in handcuffs, hauled him into an unmarked SUV, and revealed a set of charges that hit him like a punch to the stomach: one count of anally raping and orally penetrating his 11-year-old nephew, and another count of repeatedly anally and orally sodomizing the boy over a two-year period. Each carried a sentence of up to life in prison without parole.

After five days in a federal holding pen, and just before his first appearance before a judge, Jourdain finally met his lawyer. Paul Engh, a bespectacled man with the lanky frame of a basketball player, sat down and introduced himself.

Craig Lassig

Engh, a top-dollar criminal defense lawyer who has worked on many high-profile murder and terrorism-related cases, agreed to take Jourdain's case from the Federal Defenders Office for far less than his going rate. Here, the Minneapolis attorney was keeping with the tradition of lawyers who help ensure that defendants of all stripes get effective representation.

Jourdain, a standout three-sport athlete and model student in his Red Lake High School days, professed his innocence. "That ain't me," Jourdain said, at a loss to explain the depth of his anger, fear, and humiliation. "I didn't do this."

"I believe you," Engh responded.

"Can you get me out of here?" Jourdain asked.

"I'll tell you what," Engh said, looking his new client in the eye. "I'll try to get you out of here today."

Engh made good on his promise. In that day's hearing, he pointed out that Jourdain had a toddler he was raising on his own, no criminal history, and a steady job as a chemical-dependency counselor. Also, he pointed out, if Jourdain posed such a danger to the community, it shouldn't have taken the Feds four months after the alleged crimes were reported to arrest him. The judge was swayed, agreeing to release Jourdain on a signature bond.

Getting his client home pending trial was one thing. Winning the case would be quite another.

Standing in the way was a damning piece of evidence: a videotaped interview with Jourdain's nephew. The statement was made at the St. Paul-based Midwest Children's Resource Center, a division of Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, with a 20-year track record of interviewing and examining children who've alleged sexual abuse. Statements produced there, admissible in court and carrying the stamp of medical authority, have been key to convicting hundreds of defendants in Minnesota state and federal courts over the last two decades.

If Engh was going to win an acquittal for his client, he would have to call the validity of that statement into question. He would have to go to war with the people hailed as the champions of abused children.

To understand how Midwest Children's came to occupy a central role in child sexual abuse investigations, one needs to trawl back through a legal fiasco that played out more than two decades ago in Jordan, Minnesota.

It started in September 1983, when Christine Brown, a mother of five, went to the local police station with a disturbing allegation. Brown told the cops that her nine-year-old daughter had been molested by James Rud, a garbage collector and convicted sex offender who lived in a trailer park in town.

The investigation quickly mushroomed. Rud, it emerged, had allegedly abused several children, and when prosecutors interviewed them, they told elaborate and detailed stories of orgies. One young boy, for instance, recalled a party where women in transparent clothing made him have oral sex with both kids and grownups as photographs were taken.

Arrests and charges soon followed, and before long, 24 residents of Jordan—including Christine Brown, who had first come forward to the police—stood accused of molesting 37 of the community's kids.

The investigation, led by Scott County Attorney Kathleen Morris, secured the conviction of Rud, who pled guilty to 10 counts of child sexual abuse. But it soon took an even more startling turn: At least seven children were now claiming to have witnessed murders that occurred during the alleged orgies. One young girl told of a seeing a baby sodomized, then beheaded. A 12-year-old boy described seeing seven children being stabbed, mutilated, or shot, one of them in front of 25 eyewitnesses.

Shortly after announcing news of the alleged homicides, Morris, whose aggressive tactics were beginning to raise eyebrows, was confronted with a court order to release documents in the wide-ranging sex abuse cases. Citing her desire to protect the integrity of the homicide investigations, Morris dropped all pending sex charges. Less than a week later, under mounting pressure to explain her actions, she turned the case over to Skip Humphrey, Minnesota's attorney general.

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