Devil's Advocate

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

 

It was about a month later that lawyer and client saw each other again. Engh was in Red Lake on business, and met Jourdain for lunch at the smoke-filled, dingy casino in town. Afterward, they drove the five tree-lined miles to Jourdain's house.

It was a crisp afternoon, the lake reflecting the winter daylight, and the two talked about Jourdain's future plans. He had lost his job as a result of the case, and finding work, even after the acquittal, was proving difficult. He was considering the Army, he told Engh, so he could get some money for college.

Before long, it was time for Engh to head home. He walked past the broken basketball hoop in front of the garage, and got in his car. Jourdain, not quite ready to part ways, got in beside him. The younger man handed his advocate a folded red handkerchief. Engh unwrapped it, and inside found a foot-long, white-flecked eagle feather. In Jourdain's Objibwe tradition, such a gift is a sign of respect, of deference to a battle-tested warrior, and of protection.

The two hugged a final time, and Jourdain got out of the car. Engh set out on the long drive back to the Cities.

But while Engh has savored the victory, Levitt, sitting down recently in her clinic's conference room, takes issue with his criticisms of her interview methodology and her motivations.

It is not her clinic's role, she says, to establish who else has talked to the child, or whether the child may have been encouraged to fabricate allegations. It's up to law enforcement—and the defense attorney, should the case go to trial—to determine what other factors may be influencing the child's statement, she says.

"We're not looking for an alternative hypothesis," she explains. "We're looking for details from the child."

The doctor also bristles at the suggestion that her medical opinion has been bought by law enforcement. "I'm not working for the Justice Department," she says. "I am working for Children's Hospital."

The reimbursement arrangement with local law enforcement is not ideal, she concedes, but she blames that on cash-strapped counties looking for ways to cut corners in their accounting. In any event, she says, where the money comes from in a given case has no influence on her clinic's diagnosis. "The videotape comes out," she says. "We don't change the videotape."

Ultimately, she says, criticism of her in court comes down to one word: advocacy.

Defense attorneys—while none have been as systematic as Engh in their attacks —routinely say her advocacy for children makes her a handmaiden of the prosecution.

"We advocate for children's needs. That's what a children's hospital does," she says. "It's not a dirty word at all."

Defense attorneys will always try to prestidigitate the shadow of a doubt in their cases, Levitt says, but she isn't worried that Engh's success will result in other lawyers following his example.

But perhaps she should be.

 

At the end of April, the chief federal defender in Minneapolis, Katherian Roe, put together a conference for criminal defense lawyers. She asked Engh to give a talk about his case. His topic: "Discrediting experts in child sex abuse cases."

In a large, airy room in the federal courthouse, in front of more than a hundred lawyers—the biggest crowd of the day—Engh told his story. He explained how he'd dug up the federal government grants to Midwest Children's after trying, and failing, to get them from the prosecution, how he'd read up on the science, and how he'd assembled and then executed his attack on Carolyn Levitt.

"The majority of the people in the room were shocked by what he revealed about the state's witness," says Brockton Hunter, an attorney who saw Engh's talk.

Tom Plunkett, a prominent local lawyer, recalls the reaction from the normally jaded crowd of defense attorneys in attendance this way: "Jaws were hanging. Eyes were wide. Nobody asked a question until the end, because the next words coming out of his mouth—it was as though they were coming out of the burning bush."

After the talk, more than a dozen lawyers came up to Engh, all wanting to know more about how he'd undermined Levitt's authority, and how they might be able to do the same in future cases. He directed them to the court transcripts, which have since been copied by several of Engh's colleagues. Other lawyers have also called him, asking for copies of the grant information that he gathered.

Sitting in his plant-filled office on a recent afternoon, with the feather framed on the wall behind him, Engh looked almost sheepish as he discussed the impact of the Jourdain case.

"I wasn't looking for this," he said of the attention he has attracted, inlcuding an invitation to give his talk again later this year in Duluth. "I'm not a big cause guy. I'm a lawyer. The great narcotic of law is winning. I just wanted to win."

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