Distributed April 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Ross E. Cheit

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 1,170 Words

Ross E. Cheit

PBS Frontline dismisses the evidence and embraces a child molester

PBS Frontline’s “Did Daddy Do It?” purports to be a documentary about an unjustly convicted child molester. Frontline, however, appears to have dismissed important evidence and credible arguments on its way to embracing a man convicted of horrendous sex crimes against numerous children, including his own son.

Before he was accused of molesting children at his wife’s babysitting service in 1985, Cuban immigrant Frank Fuster-Escalona was embarked on a “romance in the promised land,” according to a Frontline documentary which aired on PBS Thursday (April 25, 2002). Working as an interior decorator in the pleasant Miami suburb of Country Walk, Fuster had recently met and married his third wife – 17-year-old Ileana, a recent immigrant from Honduras.

Then, according to the acclaimed documentary program from WGBH-Boston, the couple’s romance ended in a tragic miscarriage of justice. Frontline argues that prosecutors – under the direction of then State Attorney Janet Reno – got caught up in social hysteria about child sex abuse, overlooked exculpatory evidence, and effectively framed an innocent man. Frontline, however, got much of that story wrong.

Romance in the promised land? Hardly. Trial documents show that at the time of his arrest, Fuster was already on parole for child molestation, having been found guilty of squeezing the breasts and genital area of a 9-year-old girl two years before. He’d also served four years in a New York prison for manslaughter – a charge Frontline allows him to dismiss unchallenged as an “accident.” Court records, however, show that Fuster shot an unarmed man to death after a traffic dispute in the Bronx, in full view of an off-duty policeman.

The bare outlines of the Country Walk molestation case against Fuster were simple. The investigation began after several alarmed parents complained to authorities that their children were returning from daycare glassy-eyed and terrified or else displaying bizarre sexualized behavior. Some thought their children had been drugged. One child reported the abuse to a parent; another disclosed at a rape treatment center a day before being seen at the D.A.’s office. At trial, five young children from Country Walk shyly testified that Fuster had manipulated and pressured them into taking part in sexual “games.” Most damningly, Fuster’s own wife Ileana – hardly more than a child herself – testified that Fuster had terrorized and beaten her, plied her with Valium and psylocibin, and forced her to take part in sexual activities with the children.

Evidence was also introduced at trial showing that Fuster’s own 7-year-old son Noel had tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat – a disease only contracted through sexual contact. Nauseating photographs were introduced, including a posed snapshot showing Noel lifting the skirt of an adult woman to reveal her soiled underwear. Fuster said he thought the photos were funny. Not surprisingly, the jury found Fuster guilty. His conviction has been upheld at every level of state court, and he is currently serving out his sentence in a Florida prison. His wife Ileana pled guilty to related charges and, after serving 39 months in a juvenile facility, was deported to her native Honduras.

Now come Frontline correspondents Peter Boyer and Michael Kirk, relying on partisan defense lawyers and omitting crucial information to craft a revisionist story. Ileana, who is back in the United States and facing legal challenges to her U.S. citizenship, has recanted her testimony, having previously reversed herself at least three times. Now 17 years after the fact, she and Fuster’s defense attorneys blame her damning trial testimony on psychologists – our culture’s convenient bogeymen – saying that they hypnotized her and coerced her into retrieving false memories while she was held in oppressive conditions in prison.

Frontline glosses over the fact, however, that those psychologists were hired by Ileana’s own defense lawyer, who concluded, after she flunked two lie detector tests, that she was a “battered wife” whose protestations of innocence were not credible. Moreover, months before she met the defense psychologists, Ileana had disclosed to a prison chaplain parts of her horrific story of abuse, including the fact that Fuster had raped her shortly after they met, when she was a 16-year-old virgin.

The only document even remotely supporting her charges of oppressive prison conditions and coercive counseling is a 1993 affidavit by defense investigator Stephen Dinerstein, who lost his investigator’s license in 1989 in an unrelated complaint. A colorful character, Dinerstein also advanced the preposterous theory (later withdrawn by Fuster’s lawyers) that prosecutors had doctored the videotapes of the children, and that a psychologist who testified at Fuster’s trial was “an imposter” who had stolen the identity of a dead man.

Defense attorney charges of hypnosis and prison mistreatment are so exaggerated that U.S. District Special Master Charlene Sorrentino called them “sheer hyperbole” when she turned down Fuster’s appeal last month. “A comparison of Dinerstein’s affidavit with the memorandum authored by counsel yields the conclusion that the memorandum significantly distorted and revised Dinerstein’s actual assertions,” she wrote. “... Most telling, the affidavit contains no reference whatsoever to any type of hypnosis or coercive tactics being used on Ileana, or to any interference in her treatment by either the prosecutor or the police.” The court’s dismissal of these defense arguments did not prevent Frontline from accepting them.

Now for that damning gonorrhea test on Fuster’s son. Inaccurate, say defense attorneys. Frontline helpfully overlooks the fact that the defense’s own documents cite a 1983 study in the field’s premier journal, the Journal of Microbiology, which found the diagnostic test used on Fuster’s son to be 99.38-percent reliable. (See www.DebunkingFrontline.org for full documentation.) Frontline also ignores an inconvenient piece of circumstantial evidence. Fuster, testifying in his own behalf at trial, admitted he had taken penicillin – a recognized treatment for gonorrhea – two weeks prior to his arrest. His explanation to the court was that he had discovered a sore on his penis because he’d caught it in his zipper, and his doctor had given him penicillin “just to be sure.” That apparently was good enough for Frontline.

Noel, who has been eerily equivocal over the years, now claims that his father never abused him, making him the only Country Walk child known to publicly recant his or her testimony – another fact Frontline omits.

Finally, Fuster’s appellate lawyers evoke the child suggestibility defense. That was the core of the defense strategy in Fuster’s 1985 trial, when his attorney showed the jury every single videotaped interview. The jury rejected the child suggestibility defense and Frontline provides no specific argument against any of the interviews with the five children who testified that Fuster abused them.

The implications of Frontline’s botched story extend far beyond the fact that a man guilty of horrendous sex crimes against numerous children – including his own son – has been embraced so completely by public television. At a time when each day’s news brings more stories of young men gravely damaged by priestly molestations, why is it so difficult to believe that child abuse can and does occur – and often at the hands of apparently ordinary people? Why must we – why should PBS – stretch the mantle of innocence so wide that even a violent and deceptive criminal like Frank Fuster can find shelter?

Despite Frontline’s best efforts to dismiss evidence and champion weak legal arguments, the fact remains that in the case of Frank Fuster, the mantel of innocence does not fit.

Ross E. Cheit is associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University and Director of the Law and Public Policy Program at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. An attorney and scholar, Cheit is currently writing a book on the law and politics of child sexual abuse.

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