Devil's Advocate

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

Humphrey appointed more than a dozen state and federal investigators to determine just what had happened in Scott County. In early 1985, after his team had re-interviewed the children and retraced Morris's investigation, he issued a report. It was unsparing.

Children had been interviewed over and over again, he wrote, and their stories, oftentimes defying logic and uncorroborated by any physical evidence, kept changing. One girl, Humphrey noted, had been interviewed more than 20 times, with only four of those interviews reflected in investigators' notes. Another had been interviewed between 30 and 50 times. Moreover, Humphrey wrote, because some of the children had been interviewed together, there was potential for a "cross-germination" of allegations.

After the AG's team of investigators had finished, four children had recanted their murder allegations and three other kids were deemed not credible. As for the sex abuse allegations, Humphrey announced that no further charges would be brought.

Craig Lassig

"The manner in which the Scott County cases were handled has resulted in it being impossible to determine, in some cases, whether sexual abuse actually occurred, and if it did, who may have done these acts," Humphrey said at the time.

With Humphrey's report came reform. A law enacted in 1986 encouraged law enforcement to work in tandem with trained medical workers in order to streamline child sex-abuse cases, and to avoid multiple interviews of the children. That year, Children's Hospital opened the Midwest Children's Resource Center, a clinic set up to evaluate potentially abused children. It was among the first "children's advocacy centers" of its kind in the country, a model established by an Alabama prosecutor who set out to simplify the process of interviewing children in sex abuse cases. Today, there are nearly 500 such centers nationwide, and Midwest Children's serves as a regional hub, helping to set up and train staff at newer centers.

Midwest Children's director is pediatrician Carolyn Levitt, a tall woman with blond curls who has run the center for all of its 20 years. Levitt has been a pioneer in the relatively young field, authoring textbook chapters and journal articles on the subject of how to medically diagnose child sex abuse.

Children who come to her clinic—about 1,400 a year—are first interviewed and then given a medical exam. The clinic's interview technique, which has been emulated by many other centers, was developed by Levitt.

As she explains it, the objective of the interview, which is conducted in one of the clinic's two exam rooms, is to collect salient details from reticent children while steering clear of leading questions. "You have to make sure the child is sturdy enough to tell their own story," she says.

Sturdiness matters because if the child tells of sexual abuse during the interview, and if Levitt and her staff make a finding that is consistent with abuse having occurred, odds are the tape will be admitted as evidence for the prosecution in a subsequent criminal case.

The federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis is a stark, modern building with a spare, wide-open lobby that leads to a claustrophobia-inducing stand of elevators. A few flights up are the courtrooms, including the one where Daniel Jourdain's fate was decided.

On January 11, more than a year after his arrest, Jourdain sat at the front of the courtroom. He was, by his own account, a ball of nerves, dressed in a shirt and tie, his scant goatee shaved at Engh's suggestion. Jourdain watched as Assistant U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald, persuasive and quick on her feet, laid out the clear, compelling, and simple narrative of her case: Jourdain babysat his nephew many times from 2003 until the spring of 2005. On many of those occasions, she alleged, Jourdain had taken his nephew to the bedroom and both orally and anally sodomized him. There would be witnesses to corroborate that Jourdain and his nephew had spent time together at his house, and two family members would testify that the boy had either hinted at or told them that Jourdain molested him.

When MacDonald was done, Engh rose to address the jury for the first time.

"It's a wonderful thing that we can be assembled here, that we can dispute the government's contentions by inviting strangers to see it," Engh told the jurors. He insisted on his client's innocence and alluded to the holes he would poke in the prosecution's seemingly seamless story—for one thing, Midwest Children's found no injuries to the boy's anus.

Then his opening statement took an unorthodox turn. Engh, who had spent months tracking down the money trail from the Justice Department to Midwest Children's, attacked Carolyn Levitt, who would be appearing as an expert witness for the prosecution, both on the science behind her work and the funding behind her clinic. "This is big business, ladies and gentleman," he said. "There are grants. There is lots of money, and it's all funded by law enforcement."

When he was done, it was time for the first witness to testify.

The prosecution called Jourdain's nephew, now 13 years old. On the witness stand, he answered MacDonald's questions so softly that she had to ask him to sit closer to the microphone. The prosecutor quickly got to the point, asking the boy what Jourdain had done to him.

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