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November 8, 2014 permalink
The family of Julian and Thal Wendrow were taken in by the junk-science theory of facilitated communication. When their autistic daughter, through her facilitator, accused the parents of sexual abuse, their two children were placed in foster care and the father was jailed. A courtroom demonstration showed the facilitated communication to be a sham but prosecutor David Gorcyca continued the case. Fixcas has a copy of an ABC 20/20 program on the Wendrows.
The family has sued the police and the prosecutors. In earlier out-of-court settlements they got $3.75 million from West Bloomfield Police, the Walled Lake School District and the state of Michigan. Now a jury has awarded them another $3 million including $1 million to be paid by unrepentant prosecutor David Gorcyca.
Jury awards $3M to Wendrows in wrongful prosecution case
A federal jury today awarded $3 million in damages to a West Bloomfield couple, who were wrongly accused of sexually assaulting their severely autistic and mute daughter.
The verdict brings to a total of $6.75 million awarded to Julian and Thal Wendrow, who were arrested in late 2007 after their then 14-year-old daughter reportedly typed on a key board – with the help of a teacher's aide in Walled Lake District Schools – that her father had raped her over the weekend while her mother looked the other way.
The typing, a controversial method known as "facilitated communication," had been widely debunked in the last two decades. Research always found it was the aide guiding the disabled person's hand, either consciously or unconsciously.
Nevertheless, then Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca, his chief assistant, Deborah Carley, and assistant prosecutor Andrea Dean pressed on with the prosecution, even as news reports showed the method was unreliable.
Julian Wendrow, arrested in December 2007, spent 80 days in jail before prosecutors dropped the charges. Aislinn, their autistic daughter, and her brother, Ian, were placed in foster care for months before the case fell apart, when it was shown that the typing was a hoax and that the girl was not communicating at all.
Criminal defense attorneys representing the Wendrows at the time sought to test the method at a hearing in 48th District Court by asking the girl questions out of earshot of her facilitator. When they did, the girl couldn't answer a single question correctly. The lawyers used those non-answers as proof that the girl was incapable of communicating at all, much less typing out elaborate descriptions of assaults that were attributed to her using facilitated communication.
Other evidence also raised questions about the validity of the rape claims, including a physical examination of the girl, which showed her hymen was intact. The typed statements said the girl was coming forward because she feared going to hell for lying. But lawyers pointed out the Wendrows are Jewish and don't believe in the Christian concept of hell.
Ian, who received the largest part of the jury award, was interrogated for two hours by West Bloomfield police who told him they had videotape of his father assaulting his sister. Police never had such a tape and the claim was a lie that a psychologist would later testify left the boy traumatized. Jurors did watch a video showing Ian's interrogation, in which the boy, then 13, doubled over in tears.
The case drew national attention including a six-part Free Press series in 2011 and an hour-long segment on ABC's 20/20 program.
Jurors, in their verdict today, awarded $2 million to Ian, saying then assistant chief Carley violated his constitutional rights. Carley now heads the Children and Youth Services Division for the Michigan Attorney General's office.
The jury also awarded each Wendrow family member $250,000 apiece against former prosecutor David Gorcyca, saying he defamed the family when he insisted months after he left office, and a year after the case was dropped, that the Wendrows were in fact guilty of abusing their daughter. The jury awarded no damages related to Dean's conduct.
The county had spent about $660,000 on attorney fees and costs defending the case before the trial began and will decide whether to pay judgments or appeal the verdict.
Gorcyca, who left office in 2008 and now works as a defense attorney, defended his conduct and that of his former colleagues on the witness stand last week.
"I certainly think something happened," Gorcyca testified last week in U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor. "I believe some sort of sexual abuse occurred."
Deborah Gordon, who represented the Wendrows throughout the suit, said the verdict shows what really happened.
"We are very pleased with the message this sends to the community," Gordon said. "These defendants were reckless and caused this family enormous harm. And now this family has had its day in court."
Thal Wendrow, who spent several days in jail following her arrest, and months on electronic tether confined to the family home and unable to reach out to her children in foster care institutions, said the family finally had a chance to tell its story.
"Finally, our story has been heard," she said, as she and her family celebrated tonight. Her son, Ian, was not in the courtroom, instead in classes at Michigan State University. Her daughter was at home with Thal's mother.
The verdict gives the chance for the family to move forward, she said.
"We needed a jury, people in our community to hear what happened here. It was never about the money. It was about this injustice, and about making sure that people who are in power don't do this kind of thing to another family."
The defendant's attorney, Steve Potter, who had argued that the Wendrows brought their troubles on themselves by advocating facilitated communication for their daughter, and that prosecutors had acted "in good faith" in trying to protect a possible victim of sexual abuse, could not be reached for comment tonight.
The six women and two men on the jury declined to speak to attorneys following the verdict. They deliberated for a little more than a day before arriving at a verdict. The Wendrow family had sought $23 million in damages.
The other defendants, West Bloomfield Police, the Walled Lake School District and the state of Michigan, which allowed social workers to remove the children from the home, settled out of court for $3.75 million.
Source: Detroit Free Press