Bikel's questions challenge Edenton justice

‘Something was very wrong’

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Robin Byrum, distressed, on the phone

While Frontline taped family scenes with Little Rascals defendant Robin Byrum, the young mother of two received word that all charges against her had been dismissed.

Four days before the May 27 airing of “Innocence Lost: The Plea,” Frontline‘s third documentary on the Little Rascals child-abuse case in Edenton, N.C., the prosecutor announced she was dropping all remaining charges in the long and troubling legal action.

For producer-director Ofra Bikel and her colleagues at Frontline, the decision brought a rare sense of gratification. Over the past seven years, Bikel’s persistent scrutiny of a prosecution she had come to believe was unjust has made a big difference in many people’s lives. Whether the effect has been for the better or the worse depends on how close you live to Edenton, and which side of the Little Rascals case you want to believe.

“It’s not very often that a television program can set people free,” commented David Fanning, Frontline‘s senior executive producer. He said a defense attorney told him that the series deserved that much credit for its commitment to the story. “It’s obviously gratifying that you really can make a difference like that.”

Prosecutor Nancy Lamb, in contrast, said in a hearing last year that Frontline‘s coverage had “tainted” the Little Rascals case by portraying the prosecutions as analogous to “the Salem witch hunts of the 1600s.”

Bikel, who said she never used that metaphor in any of the films, is not satisfied by the latest developments. As she laid out in her most recent film, the state dropped charges against four defendants, and negotiated plea bargains with two. But, Bob Kelly, whose original conviction was overturned on appeal, now faces a new set of charges that prosecutors sought to separate from Little Rascals.

“I feel very good about the charges being dropped,” said Bikel, “I wish Bob’s charges would be dropped. This is enough. You can persecute people so long.”

“I am outraged,” confessed Bikel. “I get very angry when I see people’s lives ruined, families ruined.”

“Since 1990, I have seen nothing but ruined lives. It is terrible. You want to do something.”

This body of Bikel’s work adds up to eight hours of film. The first documentary, “Innocence Lost,” aired in May 1991, before any of the defendants had been tried. Two years later, Frontline returned to Edenton with “Innocence Lost: The Verdict,” a four-hour, two-part, special presentation on the trials that brought prosecutors their first and only convictions in the case. The most recent film examined the latest outcomes: overturned convictions, plea bargains, and dismissed charges.

Surprisingly, Bikel was not willing to say she thought the seven defendants were innocent. “I believed that the police were wrong more than I thought [the accused] were innocent.”

An explosive moment captured in “Innocence Lost”: Encouraged by their parents, girls involved in the Little Rascals case screamed, “I hate you!” at Bob Kelly as he was hauled off to prison.

In 1989-90, Edenton police charged seven defendants with engaging in a massive conspiracy, sexually abusing 90 children at the Little Rascals day care center, located in an idyllic seaside town where everyone knew each other, and each other’s business.

The traumatic case itself was quite enough to bitterly divide the community, rip apart families and congregations. Now, because Bikel was there to document it all, Edenton also bears the “stigma” of being “not a very nice place,” according to Bill Haley, former g.m. of WMHT-TV/FM in Schenectady, who retired there in 1992.

Frontline‘s “Innocence Lost” series is “highly resented” by the people of Edenton, said Haley. To them, it “appears to be a hatchet job.”

“I can understand their point of view,” commented Lawrence Wright, a writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of Remembering Satan, a book about a case involving recovered memories of satanic ritual abuse. “Why they’re reacting that way is that, in the court of public opinion, they lost. I don’t think it’s fair to say their opinions were not represented.”

“Tell us what you’ve seen”

Bikel, an Israeli who was educated in Paris, came to this unfolding drama in 1990, when she was searching for a story to tell. A long-time colleague of Fanning’s, she had done a number of ambitious studies of national cultures in transition–Poland, El Salvador, Israel, Japan.

“She is one of those few people I would assign to a country and say, ‘Go and tell us about that country’–in the tradition of a New Yorker writer, ‘Go and tell us what you’ve seen,’” recalled Fanning.

Ofra Bikel

Bikel was outraged by what she saw in Edenton.

In 1990, Bikel hired Rachel Dretzin as associate producer for a film on an undefined topic. Dretzin told her about a program she’d just completed for WNET on child sexual abuse. Bikel recalls this exchange: “I said, ‘That’s horrible,’ and she said, ‘No, actually, it’s quite interesting.’ I said, ‘Really?’ ”

Bikel decided to put three weeks of research into the topic, and she and Dretzin headed out for “reconnaissance” in southern towns where child sexual abuse cases were underway. Edenton was their first stop.

“I began to talk with people and within two or three days, I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Bikel recalled. “I didn’t know anything about the case. I came in blind.”

“My interest is to take a very complicated subject, understand it very well, and find a way to really tell people what I see and how to look at it,” Bikel said.

“Literally, once we got there, we stayed for weeks,” said Dretzin. Nobody was talking to the press, so the producers set up shop and “tried to befriend people and gain their trust.” Much of their time was spent with parents of the children who had allegedly been abused.

“I was honest with the parents,” said Bikel. She kept telling them, “it’s so hard to believe, it’s such a small town.” They said, “the reason you can’t believe it is because you didn’t hear the children. If you heard the children, you would believe it.” Gradually, the parents agreed to tell their stories to Frontline‘s cameras. It was the last time they or the prosecution would cooperate with the producer.

Bikel’s first documentary on the case hit Edenton like a bombshell. Bikel didn’t expect the reaction. The townspeople were “beside themselves with anger–they were bothered terribly, not happy at all.”

The defendants’ stories–two young mothers being separated from their infants and thrown in jail, families being ostracized and ripped apart, a trusting sister confronting her doubts about whether her brother-in-law had violated her children–were extremely compelling. Parents of the children involved were given ample time to explain their side in sympathetic interviews, but some of them nevertheless came off as hateful and vindictive.

Her questions went to the heart of a raging controversy over child sexual abuse: how much can very young children be relied on to tell the truth, and what techniques can be used to draw the truth out of them when people’s lives and reputations hang in the balance?

Bikel and Dretzen said they argued with each other about the case–who was guilty, who was innocent–as they completed work on the first film.

“To outside viewers,” Fanning said, “it was a very fair telling of this conundrum, but it raised these questions about whether an injustice was being carried out.” If Little Rascals had been an open-and-shut case, Frontline probably wouldn’t have continued to follow the story. But because of its ambiguities, the severity and extent of the charges, and the provocative questions it raised, Little Rascals warranted Frontline‘s continued coverage. “We were certainly provoked into going back to Edenton.”

Bikel was angered by the way justice was administered in the town. While she was working on the second film, she requested an interview with defendant Scott Privott. The owner of the local video store and former country club president, Privott claimed that he never set foot in Little Rascals, that he had never even seen the children who implicated him. He sat in jail for 42 months awaiting trial, because he couldn’t meet the $1 million bond.

The sheriff refused to let her interview Privott. Bikel was outraged, and swung into action. “It upset me and I said, ‘I think this is wrong.’ ” She considered Privott innocent until proven guilty, and felt he was being denied a basic right. Bikel brought a lawyer in to get the court order that the sheriff required for the interview.

“The prosecution realized that I was coming out with a show saying that Scott was still in jail after three-and-a-half years,” said Bikel. “Very fast after that, they called his lawyer and told him to ask for a reduction of bail. They suggested he ask for $50,000. That’s how Scott got out of jail.”

“A lot of things happened that made me think, ‘What is this system about?’ ”

Later, after hearing bizarre testimony by children in Bob Kelly’s trial–that they had flown on spaceships, been pushed into shark tanks, and seen the defendant shoot babies–Bikel couldn’t believe it when jurors delivered guilty verdicts on 99 counts of sexual abuse.

“To this day, Ofra is still outraged about what happened out there,” commented Dretzin. “Ofra’s skill and genius is that she was able to capture what we felt and saw,” and convey it to a larger public that knew nothing about the case. “She made that translation very skillfully.”

Bias in the eyes of beholders

The perspective that Bikel brought to her documentaries drew criticism to the films, mostly from within North Carolina.

As a journalist, Bikel believes if she thinks something is unfair, she has an obligation to say so. At that point, she said, “it is not my job to be objective anymore–even though I really, really, really tried.”

She still struggles with what she could have done differently that would have satisfied the prosecution’s side. “If I thought the parents were completely right, what could I have done differently? I knew that something was very wrong.”

Her efforts weren’t made any easier by the prosecutions’ refusal to talk to her. For the most recent film, Frontline story editor Karen O’Connor contacted Lamb, the only member of the original prosecution team still working on the case.

Frontline, independently of Ofra, made a real concerted effort to get someone to talk from their point of view,” explained O’Connor. The state’s attorney general passed Frontline‘s request to Lamb, who was “tempted in some ways,” but “ticked off with Ofra, and scared, too.” O’Connor even offered to be present at her interview, but in the end, Lamb declined.

Parents and prosecutors in the Little Rascals case have complained to UNC-TV, the University of North Carolina’s statewide public TV network, that Bikel’s films are biased and don’t represent their point of view, according to Robin Minietta, director of public affairs. “I’ve been trying to deal with that, because I think they have a valid point.”

“It’s our obligation to make sure that both sides of this very controversial and highly divided case are presented,” said Minietta. As it has done after the two earlier Bikel programs, UNC-TV produced a follow-up piece to “The Plea,” interviewing Lamb and one parent in the case, and aired it on North Carolina Now.

In the interview, recorded in a studio furnished like a living room, host Marita Matray questioned Lamb and Susan Small about the decision to drop charges, the controversy over the children’s testimony, and criticism over how the case was prosecuted. Both responded with long, rather unfocussed answers, and the interview concluded without a single follow-up question from Matray. Her questioning style was not aggressive, nor was it friendly.

“I don’t feel they owe her anything,” said Bikel of UNC-TV’s interview with Lamb. “I feel they’re cowards trying to protect their behinds.” She criticized Lamb’s appearance as a “tremendously friendly thing” that accomplished nothing.

“She has a right to her opinion,” responded Minietta, who was equally critical of Bikel’s failure to include the parents’ points of view in her later films.

Viewing all of the films and follow-up programs from his retirement home in Edenton, Haley commended UNC-TV for bringing a “different side to it.” But he added: sometimes it “sounded as though the reporters went into it with a jaundiced eye about Edenton.”

Haley’s opinion of Bikel’s films vacillates, depending on whether he’s speaking as a resident of Edenton or as a former television journalist. “A lot of it was pieced together to prove a point of view she started out with,” he commented. “The witch hunt idea.”

But, asked whether Bikel’s responsibility was to be objective or expose what she felt was an injustice, he acknowledged, “bias is in the eye of the beholder.”

“The idea of total objectivity is impossible.” Had the films been labelled as representing Bikel’s point of view, he would have accepted “just about a lot of it.”

“When you see something like Ofra’s work, you understand what journalism is all about,” said Wright. Her “Innocence Lost” films demonstrate the value of journalism as a “separate, independent institution,” acting as an “arbiter on behalf of the public, to go in and inquire, ‘What happened here?’”

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