The Common Good

Witchhunt: I Was in Prison and You Visited Me

Twenty-seven years ago this month, Brenda and Scott Kniffen, a homemaker and an inventory manager of a diesel shop, were arrested and charged with sexually abusing their two young sons, Brian and Brandon, ages 6 and 8.

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Under intense questioning by police and social welfare workers, the boys claimed to have been not only molested by their parents, but also ritually abused in a satanic cult. The youngsters said they had been hung from the ceiling by hooks, forced to engage in sex acts and photographed for child pornography.

The Kniffens were only two of more than three dozen defendants -- many of them parents of the alleged victims -- in Bakersfield, Calif., who were accused of subjecting children to horrors in elaborate molestation and satanic ritual abuse rings in the 1980s.

The accusations were shocking. Outrageous. Unbelievable.

And, the years would reveal, wholly untrue.

After serving 12 years of 240-year sentences, the Kniffens were exonerated and released from prison. Many of the other adults convicted in the Bakersfield abuse cases also were freed after their convictions were appealed and overturned.

The Bakersfield molestation cases were tainted by coercive interrogation of impressionable young children and flagrant prosecutorial misconduct -- including the suppression of exculpatory evidence.

The Kniffens' story, and that of a half-dozen other Bakersfield parents convicted of abusing their own children before their eventual exonerations, is told in unblinking, heart-wrenching detail in the new documentary, "Witch Hunt," which airs nationally at 9 p.m. Sunday on MSNBC.

"Witch Hunt" is narrated and executive-produced by Oscar winner Sean Penn, who told TV Guide magazine in a recent interview: "There are all too many examples of the way in which public opinion is swayed by tainted evidence and emotional and irrational decision-making.

"The public hysteria that surrounded this case is every bit as essential to discuss as the public corruption. These lightning-rod crimes tend to challenge our lawful assumption of innocence until proof of guilt," Penn said. "The devastation that occurred during those investigations and trials continues. It continues in the heroic efforts of the victims -- by that I mean the convicted -- to rebuild lives that were shattered for the personal and political gain of the district attorney's office and the sheriff's department."

As is often the case with wrongfully accused and exonerated folks, many of the Bakersfield parents harbor little bitterness toward those who helped put them in prison -- including their own children.

And it is the children, now grown men and women, who remain the victims of a justice system run amok. I cannot fathom the guilt I would bear if by lying -- even as an innocent child coerced by adults into confessing to things that simply didn't happen -- I had caused my parents such hardship.

All of the stories in "Witch Hunt" are wrenching. But it is the Kniffens whose faces and story stays with me most indelibly. When they were arrested and sentenced to unthinkably long prison terms, they were a simple, working-class young couple. They were in love. They loved their sons. The accusations were mind-boggling, and they had faith that they would be cleared of the horrendous charges.

When they weren't, their sons went to live in foster homes, and they went to separate prisons. But the Kniffens held on to faith and to the love they had for each other and their children. During their more than a dozen years in prison, the Kniffens wrote to each other daily. Love letters. Spiritual letters. Letters full of hope and blind faith.

That faith paid off. The Kniffens are free, they've reunited with their sons, and they're still married. Amazing.

Illinois, the state where I reside, is all too familiar with cases of the wrongfully convicted. Since 1977, the state has seen more than 75 wrongful convictions, including 19 exonerations from Death Row, according to the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

"Witch Hunt" begins with a dedication in white on a plain, black screen. There are more than 2 million people serving time in U.S. prisons. "This film is dedicated to the thousands of them who are actually innocent," the film says.

The U.S. justice system is, arguably, the best in the world. But it is not perfect.

On this Good Friday, when many Christians remember the trial, torture and execution of Jesus Christ -- a wrongfully accused and convicted innocent man -- may we take a moment to consider the spiritual implications of the failures of our justice system.

"Witch Hunt" is a cautionary tale. Fear makes people do crazy things, and hysteria can be deadly. If it could happen in Bakersfield, it could happen anywhere. "It's essential that we not be too prone to respond in packs or herds," Penn says, "like sheep."

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spoke of prison when he described God's final judgment on humanity. It's the passage where he talks about "the least of these."

When we feed the poor, help the sick, clothe the naked, he says, we are doing that for him.

"I was in prison," Jesus says, "and you visited me."

May this documentary of a modern experience with truth, mob mentality and injustice give us pause while we recall the frightening power of a witch-hunting crowd that cried, "Give us Barabas."

Jesus was a prisoner. So were St. Peter and St. Paul.

Clearly, God holds a special concern for those in trouble with the law -- whether they are innocent or guilty.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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