Trial and Error

After an appeals court overturned the convictions of two Texans implicated in a child sex ring, the latest defendant went on trial with the same judge, the same evidence—and the same verdict.

September 2010By Comments

The little girl had changed her mind. After five years, four interviews with social workers and law enforcement officers, and three trials, Ginny had come to a realization about the “sex kindergarten,” the horrible place in the trailer in that brushy field just outside Tyler where, she had previously said, she had been taught to dance and do “sexual stuff.” “I’ve remembered in my mind that that never happened,” she announced in open court. When, asked the surprised prosecutor, Smith County district attorney Matt Bingham, had she come to this conclusion? “Last week, the week before that.” What prompted it? “God.” She had prayed, she said, and received “a warm feeling in my heart.”

Ginny, eleven, is tall for her age, with wavy blond hair that falls to her shoulders. She had testified about the sex kindergarten three times in court, as had three other children, Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie (the names of all the children in this story have been changed). The four had also testified that in 2004, after “graduating” from the kindergarten, they’d left Tyler, in Smith County, and been taken by six men and women up the road to Mineola, in Wood County, to a swingers club, where they’d danced and touched one another’s privates onstage in front of two or three dozen grown-ups. The kids said they had worn costumes and been given “silly pills” to make them lose their inhibitions. They acted in skits involving parachutes and puppets. Callie told of flying around on a broomstick. The children claimed they had been paid with money or food by their adult masters, who had sometimes worn witch outfits. One of the grown-ups had cast spells. Another had shot a dog and hung it from a tree in front of the club, in broad daylight.

To Bingham’s relief, Ginny remembered the Mineola club, though her grasp of details was a little sketchy. He asked her if she had been in the club a few times or many times. “I have no clue,” she responded. He asked what she wore. “I don’t know, sexy outfit or something.”

It was July 6, the first full day of testimony in the trial of Dennis Pittman, the fourth defendant in the so-called Mineola swingers club cases. The venue was Judge Jack Skeen Jr.’s courtroom, the same place where three other defendants had been prosecuted in 2008 for forcing Sheryl and Harlan to touch each other’s privates. (I wrote about this case for TEXAS MONTHLY in April 2009.) Pittman sat quietly next to his attorney, Jason Cassel, rarely moving. The defendant was not the most appealing client, with a teardrop tattoo under his left eye, a perpetual hangdog expression, and prior convictions for burglary and drugs.

Earlier that day, Ginny and 22 other potential witnesses had been sworn in by Judge Skeen. Among them were Margie and John Cantrell and their eight foster kids, including Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie. The Mineola swingers club drama began in June 2005, when Margie, a career foster parent who had arrived from California a year earlier, stormed into the Mineola Police Department and claimed that her two new foster kids had told her that they had performed sex shows at a local swingers club. Mineola police, aided by an FBI agent, investigated and found nothing to back up the stories. (Much later, a Wood County grand jury looked into the claims; there was, DA Jim Wheeler told me, “a total lack of corroboration for what those kids said happened.”) Margie refused to let that deter her. She later claimed, “I called Smith County, the FBI, and the Mineola police several times, as well as CPS [Child Protective Services], the Smith County CAC [Child Advocacy Center], and the Smith County police.”

In November the investigation finally gained traction—in Smith County. The Texas Rangers took charge. The main investigator, Sergeant Philip Kemp, let Margie sit in on some of his interviews with the children. She even took over from Kemp, asking the kids questions herself. Her techniques, according to experts I spoke with who had seen tapes or read transcripts of the interviews, were dubious at best. Sometimes Margie cajoled the children, petting their faces and once even kissing Sheryl’s hand. Other times she asked variations on the same question over and over or actually suggested answers to the kids, answers they then repeated. Eventually Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie began talking about a sex kindergarten and club involving various family members and their friends. In July 2007 six Tyler trailer-park residents were arrested: Shauntel Mayo (Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie’s mother), Jamie Pittman (Mayo’s boyfriend), Jamie’s friend Patrick “Booger Red” Kelly, Dennis Pittman (no relation to Jamie), Sheila Sones (Mayo’s mother), and Sones’s ex-husband, Jimmy Sones. Six months later, the Soneses’ young daughter Ginny began talking about the sex club as well.

The first defendants were Jamie Pittman and Shauntel Mayo, who had lost custody of her kids in 2005 (both Pittman and Mayo were drug abusers). Though no physical evidence was ever found to link them to the alleged crimes—no DNA, fingerprints, hairs, or costumes—and though no adult witnesses, including the thirty or so adults who’d supposedly watched the sex shows, could be tracked down, both were found guilty in only four minutes. The third defendant, Kelly, fared somewhat better, receiving a guilty verdict in less than two hours. All were given life sentences.

The prosecution seemed to be on a roll, and Dennis Pittman had little reason for optimism—until a higher court stepped in. On June 17 the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, in Houston, overturned the convictions of Kelly and Jamie Pittman. Kelly, the judges said, deserved a new trial because he hadn’t been allowed to present a defense and because Judge Skeen had “adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the state in proving its case, while impeding appellant’s ability to defend himself.” (Jamie Pittman’s conviction was overturned on different grounds; Mayo’s was upheld, likely because her appellate lawyer cited none of the evidentiary issues that Kelly’s lawyers had raised.)

The ruling was no surprise to local defense lawyers. Skeen is a legend in Smith County. He was the law-and-order DA there for 21 years, then was appointed judge in 2003; he’s been reelected twice. He also has a reputation for helping the state and hindering the defense. “He never stopped being the DA,” Kelly’s attorney, Thad Davidson, told me the day after the appellate decision was announced. “He just put on a robe.”

Skeen’s 241st District courtroom is a small, pale room, maybe forty by thirty feet, with an alcove on the side for the jury. The one dash of color is an American flag under glass on the wall. Skeen, 64, sat at his bench, above the rest of the court, in a black robe. He is a large man whose face turns red when he gets angry. His hair is cleanly parted on the left.

Dennis Pittman’s case began less than a month after the stern rebuke from the Court of Appeals; surely, local defense lawyers thought, a chastened Skeen would allow Jason Cassel to put on a case. And the young attorney had worked hard to put one together. During his investigation, Cassel discovered additional interviews with the children that hadn’t been turned over to the defense in the first three trials, in apparent violation of evidentiary rules. He tracked down children who Sheryl said had been at the club, and they had no idea what she was talking about. He also found evidence that California had decertified the Cantrells as foster parents in 2003—right before they moved to rural Mineola and started fostering all over again. Cassel was going to take a completely different strategy than his predecessors. He was going after the Cantrells, especially Margie.

Cassel attacked them in his opening statements. “Margie Cantrell and John Cantrell are not trustworthy,” he said. They were career foster parents who gamed the system by claiming to have “problem” children, knowing they would get more money from the state. In fact, he noted, they made almost $110,000 in only a year and a half off of Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie. He added that the jury was “going to hear about [Margie’s] history of intimidating and misleading her own foster kids.”

The prosecutor’s case was the same as it had been in the previous three trials. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” began assistant DA Joe Murphy, “the testimony you’re going to hear, summed up in two words, is pure evil.” The state called all four children, plus a fifth, Pittman’s seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, Anna, who claimed that he had raped her when she was ten or eleven. Harlan, eleven, talked of doing “bad things” and touching his sister’s private parts; nine-year-old Callie told of doing “nasty stuff”; Sheryl, thirteen, spoke about dancing in the club. Ginny delivered her bombshell denial that she had ever attended a sex kindergarten, but it was quickly overshadowed by her acknowledgment that she too had danced at the club.

The children were handsome and well behaved, and the mostly gray-haired jurors—nine men and four women—were visibly moved by their words. During Harlan’s testimony, the foreman of the jury wiped away tears. Sheryl cried as she described playing doctor with her brother, bringing more tears from jurors. “Remember why you’re here,” Murphy pleaded to the jury. “You are here because of what they went through.”

In his cross-examinations, Cassel tried to show how the stories the children told were contradictory, inconsistent, and simply too strange to be believed. He got all four to admit that they had initially denied that anyone had ever touched them inappropriately or abused them sexually; it was only after Margie got involved that they started making allegations. (He also prompted Anna to admit that in three separate interviews with social workers, she had denied that Pittman had sexually abused her.) He repeatedly asked Callie if she had really flown around in the air on a broom, and she repeatedly said yes—though a few minutes before she had said the opposite.

Cassel called adults who had been to the swingers club (known as the Retreat), who said they had never seen any children there. Nor, for that matter, had they seen Pittman. He called a police officer who had patrolled the club parking lot and never seen any kids there. But Cassel knew he needed more than logic to beat back the emotional power of the children’s testimony. He needed his version of the big picture. He needed to prove that Margie was—as one of her former foster children dubbed her—“the puppet master.” So he called experimental psychologist Marc Lindberg, a professor at Marshall University, in West Virginia. Lindberg explained how false memories could be suggested to young children. “If you keep asking the same question,” he said, “kids change their answers.” Cassel planned to show the jury videos of Margie’s interviews with the children while Lindberg explained how her techniques could have led to false memories and answers.

The prosecution objected, claiming that showing the videos would be allowing hearsay testimony into the trial. Cassel argued, “If Dr. Lindberg isn’t allowed to testify and give examples of what he observed on video, it essentially can render his testimony meaningless, because the jury wouldn’t really be able to understand what he’s talking about.” Skeen sustained the objection, even though he had okayed showing the videos in previous trials. “I’ve testified all over the country,” Lindberg later told me, “and I have never had this sort of testimony excluded.”

The next day, Skeen struck another huge blow to the defense when he allowed Margie—the foster mother of three of the children, the interviewer of four of them, the person whose passion had driven the cases for more than five years—to invoke her right to refuse to testify on the grounds that she might incriminate herself, even though she had already testified in the first two trials. Cassel was able to question her but only after the jury had left the courtroom. The lawyer asked Margie more than 130 questions in thirty minutes. He asked her about the California decertification, about her habit of suggesting answers to the children, about her former career as an acting coach (“And you know how to teach [children] to remember lines?”). To each question, Margie answered, “I decline to answer based on my constitutional rights.” She slumped in her chair, staring down or into the middle distance, occasionally rolling her eyes and sighing loudly.

Skeen had forced Cassel to jettison much of the case he had planned to put before the jury. When Margie was finished, the defense rested.

The next morning both sides gave closing statements. Bingham concentrated on emotion: “This is the children’s day,” he said. “This is their day for justice.” Cassel stuck with logic. He asked the jury to think about “a child sex club across the street from the Mineola newspaper at a busy, busy intersection and a nursing home in a residential neighborhood off Highway 80 with . . . the police patrolling the parking lot, people installing cable, strangers able to gain entry by knocking on the door. Does it make sense?”

The jury was sent off to deliberate. Given the history of these cases and the conservative makeup of Smith County juries, virtually everyone in the courtroom believed the verdict was a foregone conclusion. (“I suspect those jurors made up their minds during jury selection,” one defense attorney had told me on the first day of the trial.) When, only ninety minutes later, jurors notified Skeen that they had reached a verdict, it was obvious these observers were correct. “Guilty,” read Skeen. He sent the jurors off to deliberate on the punishment, and when they returned, twenty minutes later, Margie and her eight foster children had filed into the courtroom to hear the sentence. Several times I had seen Margie, John, and the kids walking around the courthouse square during lunch breaks; they walked in an orderly, purposeful fashion, usually in single file. They entered now with the same determination. Harlan sat to Margie’s right and held her hand, their fingers laced tightly together. Sheryl sat on Margie’s left and did the same. Callie sat in front of them. She wore a black bow in her blond hair.

Skeen asked Pittman to rise while the sentence was read. He stood up, twelve feet from the children who had accused him. Margie closed her eyes tightly, as if in prayer. Skeen read the sentence: life in prison, plus a $10,000 fine.

Before Skeen dismissed the jury, he thanked them, launching into a four-minute soliloquy on the wonder of the American justice system. “There has been a real, a very deep price paid for us to be in this courtroom,” he said in his deep East Texas drawl, “by a lot of men and women over a lot of years that have paid the price for us to have this type of system.” His voice cracked, and he had difficulty getting some of the words out. “It’s one that we always want to keep, and it’s provided by people like you who pull the heavy wagon, share the burden, and make the tough decisions.” He finished with an explanation that the flag that hangs in his courtroom formerly flew at ground zero, where the Twin Towers once stood.

The jurors smiled a little self-consciously. They had only done their jobs. After they were dismissed, Pittman was handcuffed and led away. Half an hour later, Margie and the children left the courthouse too. Several of the kids carried papers or a small box, and a few of them skipped along the sidewalk. They would be back, all of them, soon. The next trial will likely begin in the same courtroom before the end of the year. We don’t know who is next—Jimmy or Sheila Sones or, since the DA has filed a motion to consolidate all of the remaining cases into one (including the retrials of Kelly and Jamie Pittman), perhaps multiple defendants.

After four decisive guilty verdicts, it’s likely that the next trial will have the same result, largely because it will be overseen by the same judge. “Due process demands that the defense gets to put on a case,” longtime Tyler defense attorney Bobby Mims told me. “Cassel was prevented by Skeen from doing that. Don’t get me wrong. Jack Skeen is a great guy. I love him. He’s one of my best friends. But he’s been a terrible judge on these cases.”

Mims went into his own soliloquy on the jury system. “Cassel proved that what these children say happened could not have happened. They were never in that swingers club. The problem is that juries don’t always make decisions based on logic. In this type of case they make them on their hearts or on fear. That’s a hazard of the jury system. Still, they should have all the evidence. If they then decide the defendant’s guilty, that’s fine.”

He paused. “But in these cases I don’t think they would have. I believe these people are innocent.”

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