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After spending four years in prison for allegedly sexually abusing his children, a Leesburg, Va., attorney was acquitted of the charges this month in what may be Virginia’s first case in which the susceptibility of children to suggestion played a major role. Bruce McLaughlin, 50, was convicted in 1998 on seven counts of sexually abusing three of his four children, who were then between the ages of 7 and 12. State v. McLaughlin, No. CR 11592. The charges were brought one month before McLaughlin and his wife began divorce and custody proceedings, said his attorney, Alex Levay of Leesburg’s Moyes & Levay. McLaughlin, who admitted to having an affair, had been living apart from his family for about 18 months before the charges were brought, providing plenty of time for the children to be convinced they had been abused, Levay alleged. After being convicted, a Loudoun County, Va., Circuit Court judge sentenced McLaughlin to 13 years in prison. NEW HOPE But he gained new hope in 2000, when the Virginia Department of Social Services ruled that the charges were unfounded. A year later, a state judge ordered a new trial after ruling that McLaughlin’s attorneys had provided ineffective counsel, according to Levay. McLaughlin v. Warden Fred Greene, No. 24555. At issue were the children’s written accounts of what allegedly happened to them and interviews of the children conducted by police in 1998. Levay said McLaughlin’s first defense team said they never received the letters — a point prosecutors dispute — and never listened to tapes of the interviews. Instead, they relied on transcripts typed by a police secretary. After subpoenaing all records related to the case, Levay found the notes, which he said included statements that were inconsistent with the children’s testimony at trial. Listening to the taped interviews was also critical, Levay said. “There were all these instances where answers that were supposedly the child’s answer was actually the detective answering her own question,” he said. Asked why McLaughlin didn’t catch these apparent shortcomings, Levay said they didn’t want his help and “he trusted the attorneys and thought that they would do a good job.” Granted a retrial, McLaughlin and Levay still faced hurdles as they alleged that McLaughlin’s children had essentially been brainwashed. Loudoun County Commonwealth Attorney Robert Anderson opposed allowing the defense to argue parental alienation syndrome. But Levay said, “We found that there was a significant body of research on susceptibility and that it was empirically based.” He said proving that allowed him to put on the stand Maggie Bruck, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor, who testified that children can incorporate suggestions as real events in their memories. “We’re not saying that children are not credible, just that they’re susceptible to induced memory,” Levay said. The strategy was successful, he said, adding that “a majority of jurors didn’t believe it happened.” Anderson conceded that some police questions could have been phrased better, but he said the children’s susceptibility to suggestion did not play a major role in the case. He said Levay successfully exploited inconsistencies in the children’s testimony in 1998 and their return to the witness stand four years later. Even then, Anderson said, medical experts testified that rectal scarring on one of the victims proved sexual abuse. He said such compelling evidence is present in only one of 100 cases. Anderson said he believes McLaughlin was acquitted because Levay’s use of inconsistencies in the children’s statements and ability to cast doubt on questions asked of the children by their mother and police muddied the waters for jurors. “They felt that it was possible the mother might have been suggestive of answers,” Anderson said, adding that they also thought “there might be abuse, but they weren’t sure who it was.” Levay said McLaughlin is working to regain his law license and custody of his children. He may also be returning to a courtroom soon — as a plaintiff in lawsuits filed against those he blames for putting him behind bars for four years, Levay said.

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