Steven Miller: “When my children were born, the whole majesty of the world unfolded for me.”
This is the story of how we, the good people of San Diego County, got Steven Miller. On January' 23, 1986, Superior Court Judge David Gill decided that Miller had inserted his finger into the vagina of his four-year-old daughter and into the anus of her younger sister. As a result. Miller spent four months in jail and began a five-year probation. Does it sound as if he escaped lightly? Perhaps so. though he seems as broken, as ruined a man as I have ever known. If he never molested his two beloved children, as he has maintained from the beginning, then his life is a tragedy beyond words.
The first day I met him. Miller warned me that I could never know for sure that he was not guilty. “Even the people who love me most in the world — my mother, my fiancee — they can’t know that with absolute certainty,” he said, his face twisting with emotion. Miller cries so easily these days, and it’s something I always viewed with a mixture of pity and repulsion. He’s a big man, six foot one. thirty-four years old and aging rapidly. His hairline is receding, and in the last two years, he’s put on extra pounds that have begun to bloat him. Weeping, he looks too exposed, beyond shame. Intellectually, he accepts that he cannot ever be conclusively vindicated. There’s no missing piece of evidence to be found; no videotape, say. of what really happened in the early morning hours of January 28, 1985. Yet with every fiber of his being, Miller wants to convince the world of his innocence. This yearning obsesses him.
Judges David Gill and Robert Cooney heard the case at different stages.
He overwhelmed me with documents pertaining to his case. (I recently placed them on my bathroom scale, and they weighed more than twenty pounds.) He urged me to talk to the man who prosecuted him (who remains as convinced today as ever of Miller’s guilt); and to his ex-wife (who refused to acknowledge a written request for an interview). Because she would not talk with me, I heard only a one-sided account of this marriage, which came to such an ugly conclusion. Miller nonetheless recounts the story of his one-time love affair with confessional candor.
Where does that story really begin? In Miller’s childhood? Miller grew up in Sacramento, the eldest of four children, a bright, independent son of a middle-class family. At Miller’s trial, he and his mother both testified to the normality of his childhood and youth, though his own parents divorced when he was in his late teens. Perhaps because of that trauma. Miller’s thoughts turned early to a career in psychology. He worked his way through junior college in Sacramento, then got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Two years later, he had finished a master’s degree in clinical psychology from San Diego State University, and he immediately got a job as a caseworker for Social Advocates for Youth, a Linda Vista youth services agency.
This job brought him and Esther Flores together. Today Miller recalls their first meeting in vivid detail. “It was November 29, 1979,” he says. The scene was a party held at Miller’s boss’s home in Kensington. Somehow Miller had wandered away from the center of the socializing and into a den, where he discovered a Hispanic woman sitting with the family’s children and watching a John Belushi killer bee routine on Saturday Night Live. Although the woman worked as the housekeeper and nanny for Miller’s boss, she also had some experience in social work, and that night she dressed in party clothes; Miller remembers her wearing a slinky black dress slit up the side. Yet she had sought out the children’s company, and Miller warmed to that. He had recently “stumbled through some relationships” with a couple of women who were intently concentrating on their respective careers. Esther, in contrast, harbored some professional aspirations — she talked about wanting to complete her bachelor’s degree in social work — but she blended that with an unabashed interest in family life. Miller was intrigued.
So not long after the party, he met her again, and a strong physical attraction quickly sparked between the two. "One month later, our first child was conceived,” Miller says flatly. "Talk about a whirlwind romance. I met her, and we had instant family.” Miller says he reacted to the news of her pregnancy with an odd delight. “You can look at that in one of two ways: either I was an utter fool, or I was in love and enjoyed the idea of being a daddy." He doesn’t recall Esther pressuring him in any way to get married, yet that idea quickly gathered momentum. That spring Steve was accepted into graduate psychology programs at three universities, one of which, the University of Kansas, also had a well-respected program in social work. There Esther could finish her bachelor’s degree while Steve labored toward his doctorate. The two would share the chores of caring for their baby. This at least was Steve’s rosy, love-dappled fantasy.
The two were married on the first day of summer in 1980, in a casual ceremony that Steve says reflected his liberal, new-age, vegetarian, naive world view. “A friend who’s a jeweler made some rings.... We had a hippie wedding.” Steve’s mother sewed a Mexican wedding dress for Esther, and the two families gathered one morning on the cliffs at Cabrillo Point before a bearded, long-haired minister. “It was the best day of our marriage,” Steve says today, fondly. “It felt very affirming.” After the improvised exchange of vows, the group adjourned for breakfast at Margarita’s in Ocean Beach, where Steve’s and Esther’s fathers split the bill.
Not too long ago, Steve went through his many photo albums, and he painstakingly removed every image of Esther, placed them all in a wok, and put a match to them. He says he knows that sounds crazy, but it was for him a concrete expression of his rage and hatred. He saved only one picture of his ex-wife, a shot taken of the couple on their wedding day. In it, a bearded Steve grins broadly, while the bride looks happy, her dark tresses crowned by a ring of yellow daisies. The long white dress conceals her pregnancy; just three months later, Esther delivered a healthy infant daughter christened Maria Roseanna.
“It was unbelievable joy,” Miller says today of his daughter’s birth. The couple had moved to Kansas the previous month, and Miller had plunged into his graduate studies, but the excitement of school paled when compared to the ecstasy of fatherhood. “When my children were born, the whole majesty of the world unfolded for me,” he states in a voice unsteady with emotion. People talk about the bonding that occurs between mothers and their newborns, but “that bonding, that rapture, that awe is there with dads as much," he asserts.
Steve didn’t enjoy too protracted a period of bliss, however, as he settled into the routine of graduate school; he says the first serious tension between him and Esther took shape within just a few months after his daughter’s birth. As Steve tells it, he began questioning Esther about when she planned to enter school, only to be greeted with an obvious lack of interest. While Esther stayed at home, Steve shouldered three part-time jobs (in addition to his classes), and he says that soon he “began to feel the conventional (husband-wife) relationship descending on me: ‘You’re the homemaker and I’m the breadwinner.’ I hated it." Steve’s own mother had worked for many years, and he never had envisioned for himself a marriage partner who didn't share all the tasks of daily life. Yet he gradually began to feel that Esther coveted the life of a traditional wife and mother. “I felt like a fool,” Steve says. “I was feeling ripped off on the parenting, frankly.” When he and Esther eventually sought the advice of a marriage counselor, Steve was urged to accept his wife for what she was, but he admits, “Frankly, I didn’t love her enough to accept her the way she wanted to be. I felt duped. This was not the dream that I had had.”
In the fall of 1981, Esther enrolled in two classes at the university. If her academic career at last seemed resuscitated, however, it collapsed again immediately; in the spring of 1982, she announced she was pregnant again. A second daughter, Elena Carmen, was born on September 11 of that year. Steve says she was a beautiful little girl, delicate and shy in comparison with her sister’s robust, outgoing nature. Steve says at Elena’s birth his heart overflowed with love — despite his grim conviction that the timing of her birth couldn’t be worse. Esther, as he saw it, had deliberately gotten pregnant as a way to escape being a student again. Around this time, something else happened that increased the stress upon the family. Esther, who suffered from arthritis, had been receiving around $800 per month in disability payments, but this money was discontinued when the government challenged her disability. When Steve harangued his wife to get a job, he says she angrily accused him of being racist, sexist, and anti-disabled. By the spring of 1983, full-blown arguments between the two had reached the vicious stage. Steve today admits this with open shame. “I don’t deny that I emotionally abused Esther,” he says. He would call her “shithead," tell her she was a poor excuse for a human being. He excoriated her “welfare mentality.” He says, looking back, “We were poison with each other. We were oil and water. We were not meant to be, but somehow we shared the parenting of two beautiful children.”
By the summer of 1983, Esther and Steve had resigned themselves to a trial separation. The wife and the two little girls moved to the house of a brother in San Diego, while Steve wound up his dissertation research and prepared to begin a year-long internship at Atascadero State Hospital. He says he sorely missed his children, however, and by the end of the summer, he and Esther had decided to give the marriage one more try. In September of 1983, Esther and the girls joined him in San Luis Obispo, and the couple decided three-year-old Maria would benefit from nursery school. Steve recalls that news of the alleged molestations at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach was just breaking, and he and Esther concurred that they needed to talk to Maria “about good and bad touching." Today Steve shakes his head and declares, “We were buying into that hysteria.” Yet he says that at the time it “seemed like a good idea, and we said, 'Only Mommy and Daddy can touch you, and if anything happens, you need to tell us.’ ”
He says life in California didn’t exert any miraculous healing power over the shaky marriage, and he and Esther continued to wrangle. In early February of 1984, Esther received a further blow when a telephone call from San Diego informed her that her father — with whom she had enjoyed a rapprochement the previous summer — had been brutally murdered by a crazed black landlord in Southeast San Diego. “It seemed like a cruel twist to me," says Steve, who shouldered the gruesome job of traveling to San Diego and cleaning out his father-in-law’s blood-soaked apartment.
Steve says it wasn’t long afterward — maybe a few weeks, a month — when Esther first raised the suggestion that he was acting inappropriately with Maria. Steve says, “You have to remember that I clearly didn’t love Esther at this point. Our sexual life was intermittent at best. And I was totally affectionate with my daughters.” With Esther disabled by arthritis, Steve says, "In a sense, I became the physical affection doler-outer in the house too.” He says he was sitting in a reclining chair one night, laughing and bouncing Maria in his lap, when Esther coldly declared from across the room, “You need to stop that if you can’t control yourself,” implying clearly that she thought he was becoming sexually stimulated by his daughter. “I was not getting off on Maria bouncing on my knee,” Steve today says coldly. “However, I was being fatherly with my daughter. She was my little partner. My little tag-along.” Though he was taken aback by Esther’s veiled accusation. Miller says he never thought of mentioning it to someone outside the family. "I didn’t know at the time that this was the genesis of some ultimate legal drama,” he says. “It seemed like a family embarrassment.”
He says he felt the same way a few weeks later when a hostile Esther late one night told him that Maria had stated he had touched her vagina. Steve says he didn’t know how to interpret that comment; he wondered if his daughter wasn’t reacting in some odd way to the lectures about “touching.” Steve says the next morning, when he, Esther, and Maria talked, the little girl stated, “No, it was just a joke. It was a game.” Today Miller inserts another thought. “You have to remember that I did touch my daughters ’ vaginas hundreds of times. I bathed them. I changed too many diapers. I applied Desitin to them when they got diaper rash. I stuck a rectal thermometer in their butts when they were sick.... I’ve never been sexually inappropriate with my daughters. Ever,” he says. But the parental touching which he did do may be "another little piece of a seed of something that might be relevant,” he suggests.
The ugly specter of child abuse moved to the background in the late spring and early summer of 1984, as the Millers’ marriage worsened. “We were at war,” Steve says, adding that the domestic crisis finally climaxed one afternoon in July, when he and Maria were watching the Olympics on television. Esther demanded to switch channels and an ugly brawl erupted. Steve says Esther flailed at him and he grabbed her by the wrists and shoved her away. The little girls were crying. Steve says the sudden violence showed him with the force of a sledgehammer, “This is painful for the kids, and it’s selfish of me to continue this.” As the girls lay down for a nap, Steve says he stretched out beside them and cried. “Because I knew that we were not going to be a family anymore.”
Shortly thereafter, Esther and the children returned to San Diego, where they began house-hunting. Steve in the meantime completed his internship and accepted a job as a child and adolescent therapist at a counseling clinic in Ridgecrest, a small town in the high Mojave Desert. Separated by 240 miles from his wife, Steve says relations between the two of them ironically became friendlier, though they planned to divorce.
They decided to wait until after the beginning of the new year to initiate the formal proceedings, according to Steve. Esther had won reinstatement of her disability payments and settled into a rented house in El Cajon. Steve in the meantime moved into a trailer park and agreed to pay off the couple’s heavy debts and send Esther $150 to $200 per month for child support. Every two weeks or so, he would rise before dawn and drive south, arriving in El Cajon around 8:00 a.m. “That four-hour drive felt like ten minutes, and that sense of coming together and love was so powerful.” He says upon his arrival each time, he’d sit down on the couch and two-year-old Elena would stand on his stomach and pat his head, murmuring, “Daddy, Daddy.” Maria would bubble over with accounts of her recent activities.
The father planned no complex agendas for the visits, though he sometimes took the girls on outings, and Esther invariably would accompany the threesome, a feat that Steve says made him uncomfortable; he thought the children should be discouraged from harboring any fantasies about their parents reunifying. And by December he had emotionally withdrawn further than ever from Esther. In fact, he had already gotten interested in another woman, the receptionist at the clinic where he worked. “I tend to fall in love quickly,” he confesses, and his relationship with Caroline (not her real name) had grown passionate. In early December of 1984, Steve informed Esther that he was romantically involved with another woman, one who happened to be black. “Now, I think it was a critical mistake to tell her. At the time, I didn’t mean it to be cruel, though Esther probably perceived it that way. I told her because I wanted to let her know I was moving on.” Steve says Esther’s first reaction was to voice, with apparent hurt, her thought that their marriage had still had a chance, a thought Steve says surprised him. “Her second reaction was anger at Caroline, and her third reaction was anger at me.”
Esther’s disgust over Steve’s love affair didn’t prevent her from inviting him to stay at the El Cajon house that Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, Steve says he thought he was being discreet when he waited until Esther was in the shower and his girls were playing with their Christmas presents before calling Caroline in Ridgecrest. Yet Esther somehow heard him and angrily interrupted the call. Despite this argument, the two made arrangements for Steve to return in three weeks for another visit with the girls.
Steve drove down early Saturday, January 26, and reveled in another reunion with his daughters. That night he stayed at the house of a friend in Ocean Beach. He had no specific plans for where he would be staying Sunday night, bui at the last moment, he accepted Esther’s invitation to sleep once again in a spare bedroom in the El Cajon house. The next morning, Monday, he had an eight o’clock appointment with a former professor at San Diego State University, and he figured it would be convenient to get to the university from El Cajon. At least that’s his story.
Here is how Steve accounts tor his actions on the morning of January 28, 1985. He says his alarm clock awakened him about 7:00 a.m., whereupon he opened his bedroom door and walked in his underwear to the bathroom. There he turned on the shower, which he knew to take a while to warm up. Steve says he then proceeded into the living room, where he had left the bag containing his toiletries. He was on his way back to the bathroom when he encountered Esther, who angrily questioned him as to what he was doing. Steve says he told her he was going to shower and head for his early appointment. Later he would return to the house and say good-bye to the children. He says he did just that, and upon his return to the house, all seemed normal; he then left for Ridgecrest.
Esther’s version of those events, according to a subsequent police report and her testimony in court, doesn’t vary much from Steve’s. She told police that about 6:30 she heard one of her daughters cry out in their bedroom (which adjoined Esther’s). Because of her arthritis, it took the mother some time to get out of bed, but when she finally looked in on the two children, they appeared to be sleeping normally. Hearing the shower running, Esther thought Steve was bathing, but then she encountered him coming in from the living room. They talked, and he left. Later that day he returned, and in the early afternoon, he set off for Ridgecrest.
But something crucial occurred within a half-hour or so after Steve’s departure, according to Esther. She later told authorities that four-year-old Maria came to her that afternoon and stated, “Mommy, my vagina hurts real bad. Can you look at it?” Upon inspecting the girl, Esther found "the whole outer area of her vagina was very red. It looked like she had a very bad rash. There was a very funny odor, and on her underwear there was a kind of a brownish stain.” The night before, during her bath, Maria’s genital area had appeared perfectly normal, the mother added. When she questioned her daughter, the little girl told her, “My daddy touched my vagina,” Esther said.
Six weeks passed before Esther informed any authorities of this revelation. She later explained that she didn’t know whom to call and that furthermore “it took a couple of weeks of coaxing” to get Maria to tell her the details of what had happened. Esther eventually testified during Steve’s trial that she had confronted her estranged husband with Maria’s accusation during a phone conversation in mid-February. Steve denies that any such conversation took place, and he points out that a letter from Esther that he received on February 15 made no mention of any alleged molestation. Yet that three-page tirade made it clear that Esther was very angry with him. She complained about the amount of child support he was paying and heatedly vowed that she would “do anything and everything necessary to protect my girls.’’ This would include keeping them from meeting Caroline; Esther added that “Maria has said ... she’s allergic to black people.” She concluded, “I have bent over backwards trying to be reasonable and even opened my home to you only to get kicked in the teeth over and over. Enough is enough Steve. I won’t take it nor will I pretend to be gracious to a woman (Caroline] who fucks a married man two months after meeting him and then proceeds to make demands for his money and my kids. Over my dead body will she ever meet them and her days as your fuck will surely end when you no longer have any money for her fun or yours!”
On March 8, Esther finally called a local child abuse hotline and reported Maria’s allegation. By then, according to Esther, the younger girl, Elena, had chimed in with the accusation that Miller also had “touched her butt.” Events quickly accelerated. From the family courts, Esther obtained a temporary restraining order barring Steve from seeing the girls, and she also prepared a letter to Steve in which she put the accusations in writing. These papers greeted the psychologist on the morning of March 9, when he arrived in El Cajon for a routine visit with his children. “I was terrified,” he recalls of his reaction to this turn of events. He drove to the home of friends, drenched in an eerie cold sweat.
The following week was a busy one for Esther and her girls. In response to her phone call, Esther was directed to an agency called VOICE (Victims of Incest and Molestation Coping Emotionally and Effectively). In the agency offices, the mother described Maria’s allegations to a psychotherapist, who then led Maria into an examination room. “I showed her the anatomically correct dolls [dolls with genitalia], one large female, one large male, and one small female,” the therapist wrote in a subsequent report. Maria then stated that the dolls looked like her and her mother and father. “I asked what kind of games they played,” continues the report. “She demonstrated a sort of wrestling, which she enjoyed. I asked if her daddy had ever played a game that hurt her. Maria became quiet and tense. I then told her a story about another little girl and described a girl who had been molested. Maria stated that her daddy had done that to her. I asked her to show me with the dolls. She took the male doll's hand and pointed to the vagina on the small female doll. I asked if her panties were down and to show me how. She demonstrated by putting her own finger on the doll’s vagina. She stated that it hurt when Daddy did that and she was scared. She stated that Daddy did it in the morning and night when Mommy was asleep. I attempted to ask how many times but Maria was unable to give a clear answer.” The entire session lasted about fifteen minutes.
The next day, Maria and Esther found themselves repeating their accounts to an El Cajon Police officer, who urged Esther to have the girls seen by a doctor. Eleven more days passed, however, before the mother and daughters finally made their way to Children’s Hospital and Health Center. There yet another social worker, armed with more anatomically correct dolls, played with and talked to Maria, concluding that "Maria gives a clear, credible history of sexual abuse by her father, consisting of digital-vaginal penetration.” The social worker reported this conclusion to pediatrician Patricia Dunklee, a recognized child abuse expert on the hospital’s staff, who proceeded to examine both Maria and Elena. Dunklee found two reddened areas, each about a centimeter (less than half an inch) long, on the inner lips of Maria’s vagina. “This probably represented a healing abrasion from fingernail injury,” Dunklee concluded. Turning to Elena, she found the two-year-old’s vagina to be normal, but upon examining her anus, Dunklee reported that the orifice opened spontaneously — “an indication of prior penetration of her rectal canal.” When the doctor inserted her gloved finger into the little girl’s anus, “There was a sphincter spasm, «nd the child began to cry and said that that hurt her a great deal. After she sat down again on the table, I asked her if anyone had done anything like that to her before, and she said, ‘Yes, Daddy put his finger in my butt. It hurt.’ ”
This was “strong scientific evidence,” powerfully convincing to the mind of Assistant District Attorney Gary Rempel, the prosecutor who handled the case against Miller. “I proceeded cautiously in this,” Rempel said recently. “I have a higher standard of proof than I expect of the jury. I don’t go to court unless I’m convinced more than just beyond a reasonable doubt.” In addition to Dunklee's findings, Rempel says he also talked to both Maria and Elena and found them to be “both persuasive, honest witnesses.” He also thought that if Esther were just seeking vengeance on her estranged husband, she would have been more specific in her accusations. “She was in a wonderful position to manufacture evidence and say, ‘I caught them in a compromising position.’ But she didn’t.” Rempel says he in fact felt “I had to prosecute this case in spite of her.” She was "angry, hurt, verbal, and at times annoying.”
So Rempel concluded that Miller was guilty. Miller in the meantime had no idea that any of these events were happening. No policeman or investigator contacted him, though he did get word that he should meet Esther at the family conciliation court downtown on April 9. Upon the advice of his divorce attorney. Miller showed up in an optimistic frame of mind, and he sat down with Esther to watch a film pitching the value of cooperation during divorce proceedings. At the conclusion of the film, Esther slipped out of the room and two policemen approached Miller. Informed that he was being charged with four counts of felony child molestation. Miller a few hours later found himself rubbing shoulders with a cell full of sex offenders at the county jail.
"You can never fully defend yourself in something like this," Miller ™ asserts. “You’re reeling; you don’t know what’s going on.” Virtually broke, he scrambled to borrow money from family members and friends so that he could retain an attorney. Six weeks after his arrest. Miller faced Judge Robert Cooney in a preliminary hearing to decide if the case should go to trial. From Miller’s perspective, the hearing couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. Almost the first words out of Rempel’s mouth were a complaint that Miller was “grimacing” at little Maria. (Today the prosecutor says the expression on Miller’s face wasn’t angry or happy, but rather “very intense.”)
“Sir, sit back and relax,” the judge told Miller, who murmured, “Easier said than done.”
“Sir, listen to me carefully,” the judge retorted sternly. “I have no intentions of playing games with you. Smile like that again and I’ll put you out of the courtroom and we will proceed without you. When I tell you to sit back and relax, I mean sit back and relax!”
Cooney then ordered Miller to face the clerk at all times during the rest of the proceedings. One of Rempel’s chief witnesses was Dr. Dunklee, who reviewed the findings of her examination of Maria and Elena. The judge did bluntly question the fact that the pediatrician didn’t examine the girls until two months after the alleged molestation had occurred.
“Sixty days later, would there still be evidence of the penetration?” he asked.
“I have to say not necessarily,” Dunklee replied.
Then how old did she think Maria’s vaginal irritation was? the judge pressed. “I believe it could be two months old," the doctor answered.
“I realize this is difficult, but on a scale of one to 100 with, of course, 100 being 100 percent, what percentage of certainty would you give to the injuries still showing sixty days later?" the judge persisted.
“This is very hypothetical, and I’m going to say —
"Give me highs and lows."
"Seventy percent” the pediatrician responded; that would be her guess picked "out of the blue.”
Esther also took the stand that morning, as did Elena, though the frightened two-year-old couldn’t be induced to utter more than a few words. The most dramatic witness, by far, was four-year-old Maria. "She looked pale, horrible, zombified,” Miller says. The transcript of her testimony, some thirty-four pages long, reflects a child who was hesitant and, at times, apparently confused. For example, this exchange occurred between the prosecutor and the little girl:
Rempel: When your daddy was living with you. did anything unusual or bad happen to you?
Q: What happened?
Q: What happened to you?
A: No. But — but — but it — nothing.
Q: Nothing happened to you?
To this, Maria shook her head no. A few minutes later, the prosecutor asked the girl, "Were you awake when Daddy touched Elena’s vagina?”
Q: Were you asleep?
Q: Were your eyes closed?
Q: Then how could you see Daddy touch Elena's vagina, if your eyes were closed and you were asleep?
A: Because could be from my mind.
But Maria also answered yes to Rempel’s questions about whether her father had put his finger in her vagina. And when the prosecutor asked the little girl, "Did Daddy say anything to you about what would happen if you told — if you told Mommy?” Maria said, "Yes. That — that Daddy — Mommy won’t love me anymore.”
How could Maria have fabricated that specific statement? Miller confesses that the question gnaws at him. In his own mind, he can account for so much of Maria’s testimony. He can explain how his loving daughters could accuse him of these terrible things, things that never happened. But this threat of parental rejection is a complex, sinister thing for a child to manufacture. "I don’t have a ready explanation for it,” Miller says. "And it also hurts a lot because” — he begins crying again — "I never threatened my daughter with anything.” He can only, helplessly, deny it.
It’s an isolated note of uncertainty. When it comes to the big challenge — how could these little girls lie? — Miller is confident and unwavering. He says he’s convinced that Maria did go to her mother and complain about genital pain. Miller thinks she probably had some kind of vaginal infection (and at his subsequent trial, an expert witness testified that the symptoms Esther noted, including odor and a discharge, could not have developed in the few hours after Miller allegedly molested the girl). Miller thinks that his ex-wife had become increasingly paranoid under the stresses of the divorce, and when confronted with the girl’s complaint, Esther probably gave Maria a direct suggestion. Miller believes she probably asked, for example, "Did Daddy touch your vagina?” Maria, confused over the divorce, probably harboring some anger toward her father, might understandably have confirmed Esther’s suggestion. "A child, a very young child, can with total guilelessness twist reality,” Miller insists. "Children that age are unbelievably susceptible to suggestion and hypnosis.” Over the weeks that followed, Esther continued to push her daughter for "details” of the molestation, and Miller now thinks both Esther and even Maria quickly came to believe the story. “It’s like a prisoner of war situation,” Miller says. "The willingness to please is all there." The pressure upon Maria only intensified as the police and various social workers entered the picture. "Maria was caught in this crossfire of well-intentioned people who were involved with her,” Miller maintains. "Very powerful learning influences happen in this environment.”
But at the preliminary hearing. Miller’s attorney didn’t present this argument (since defense attorneys generally don’t show their hands at this stage of the proceedings). And Judge Cooney clearly didn’t harbor any doubts of his own about Maria’s testimony. He found the uncontradicted evidence against Miller to be “overwhelming” and not only bound Miller over for trial but also forbade the psychologist to continue working in his job as a child and adolescent counselor (unless his youthful clients were accompanied by relatives who knew about the charges against Miller). “Feelings run very, very high in situations of this nature,” the judge said. (At another point he had commented. “I don’t want anybody who commits the crime we are discussing to be a child psychiatrist or child psychologist, because if he dealt with my child, I would kill him”)
Miller resigned from his job not long after the preliminary hearing and devoted himself to preparing for his trial. In particular, he concentrated on gathering expert information to bolster his contention that very young children caught up in divorces are dubious witnesses to alleged molestation. The trial finally unfolded in early January of 1986, and the prosecutor called essentially the same witnesses he had presented at the preliminary hearing: Maria, her mother, Dunklee, and three social workers who had interviewed the girls. In his defense, Miller testified, as did various personal supporters. But the heart of his case was the appearance of three expert witnesses: a gynecologist, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist. Among other things, the gynecologist gave his opinion that medical photographs taken by Dunklee of Maria’s vagina simply failed to show any evidence of the trauma that the pediatrician had noted. Both the psychologist and the psychiatrist testified that independent (and methodologically different) evaluations of Miller seemed to support his plea of innocence. Both also spoke at length about growing evidence as to the unreliability of very young children’s recall and about mounting professional concern about false accusations of child abuse arising in divorce cases.
Miller was so eager for the psychologist to testify that he says that influenced his decision to have Judge David Gill, rather than a jury, decide his case. (The expert psychologist was available right at the start of the trial but would have been tied up with other commitments by the time a jury could have been selected. Gary Rempel, on the other hand, sneers at this explanation. The prosecutor thinks Miller chose the judge out of the fear that twelve fellow citizens would have convicted him.)
In any case, it was the judge alone who heard Miller’s lawyer question Minnesota psychologist Ralph C. Underwager. Underwager testified about his own extensive analysis of various child abuse investigations and his subsequent conclusion that interrogators commonly shape the children’s responses. Some “go into any kind of interrogation with ... the prior belief that abuse has occurred. They’re going to elicit, they’re going to pull from the child, statements that will support, affirm, and go along with that prior expectation,” Underwager asserted. “In many, many, many of the tapes and the transcripts that I’ve examined and analyzed, [the interviewer] does things like simply ignore any disconfirming information.” If a child says he wasn’t molested, “the interviewers have... simply repeated the question.” Underwager also cast aspersions on the use of anatomically correct dolls and summed up recent reports of false child abuse accusations arising in acrimonious divorce cases.
Citing study after study, Underwager also argued that children under the age of five differ in important psychological ways from adults. Their memories are very primitive, he stated, and they cannot separate fact from fantasy. They’re also much more susceptible to leading questions, Underwager said, and when they do distort the truth in response to such questions, they can be serene and untroubled by the distortion. Very young children have an intense desire to please. Underwager added.
At another point during the trial. Miller's lawyer, Anthony Valladolid, seemed to provide the courtroom with a graphic example of that principle. Five-year-old Maria sat on the stand, and the defense lawyer smiled as he approached her.
Valladolid: Have I talked to you since the last time we were in a courtroom like this?
Maria: I guess so.
Q: Do you remember when?
Q: When was that?
A: A long time ago.
Q: Uh-huh. But. okay. Do you remember —
Do you remember we talked once in court?
I‘m not talking about that time. I'm talking about the other time. Do you remember when I talked to you then?
Q: Okay. When was that. Maria? ... What did we talk about?
A: Stuff that my daddy did.
Q: Uh-huh. Where were we when we talked?
Valladolid continued to press Maria. asking if the two had talked another time, outside the courtroom, and a moment later the little girl affirmed that they had.
Q: Okay, where were we?
A: I think outside.
Q: Do you remember if we were in the — in the courthouse or outside, outside in the fresh air?
A: Just remember that we were in the courthouse.
Q: Do you remember if we were in the hallway or some other room?
A: I remember I was in the hallway.
Q: Uh-huh. We were in the hallway. Do you remember what we talked about. Maria?
Q: Were we having a friendly, a friendly talk?
A: A little bit friendly.
Q: Did we talk about — about your toys?
Q: What did we talk about?
A: My daddy.
The defense lawyer then dropped this line of questioning. But two weeks later, when all the other witnesses had testified and the lawyers summed up their arguments, Valladolid swore to the judge that he and Maria in fact had only spoken once before the trial, at the preliminary hearing. Maria had made up the hallway conversation about her father, in response to the lawyer’s provocative questions.
The judge seemed unimpressed by the tactic. He also didn’t make too much of the conflicting medical testimony or the psychological experts’ opinions. “I have what I consider to be a substantial advantage, if you will, if that’s the proper term, over all the other witnesses, the experts who have testified,” Gill finally stated. “Because I heard her (Maria) testify under oath, and I observed her demeanor, her manner. I have to assess her credibility.... And I find myself convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Miller is guilty...”
Gill recently declined to talk about that judgment, citing the fact that Miller is still appealing the case. But prosecutor Rempel recalled the decision willingly. “I think the most credible witness in the world is an eight-year-old girl,” he said. “And some of the younger ones, being totally without guile, if they’re capable of verbalizing what they have seen, are also very credible.... I disagree respectfully with Mr. Miller and some of those psychologists who favor his line of reasoning, that children witnesses are not reliable. In fact, the law disagrees with Mr. Miller. The jury instructions disagree with Mr. Miller.”
Thus Miller was convicted, and on April 18, 1986, he was sentenced to six months in jail and five years’ probation. Miller says he doesn’t want sympathy for his jail experience. It was unpleasant, surreal, alien, but he survived — a month in county jail, followed by three months in honor camps — without suffering any physical abuse. He was finally released about two months early for good behavior.
This past June, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected his plea to overturn his convictions. The appellate court dismissed Miller’s arguments that Judge Gill had made two technical errors and also disagreed that "substantial evidence" failed to support the convictions. The appellate court acknowledged that "Marias inconsistent statements raised a question as to her credibility," but the decision went on, "It is for the trier of fact (that is. Judge Gill) to determine the credibility of a witness, not the appellate court..,. We are ... bound by the court’s conclusion that Maria was a credible witness.”
Miller then asked the United States Supreme Court to review his case, but earlier this week the court refused to hear his appeal. “I like dreaming when I sleep.” Miller said recently, “because all my dreams are tame, compared to real life.” When Miller was in jail, the district attorney’s office wrote the University of Kansas and informed the psychology department of the San Diego man’s convictions, whereupon the department voted unanimously to expel Miller from the doctoral program (all that he had had remaining was to write up and defend the results of his dissertation research). Since then. Miller has tried sporadically to get a job in the mental health field, but with little success. He currently earns the minimum wage by delivering lost luggage from Lindbergh Field in the evening hours.
"I cannot quite submit to the contention that my life is ruined. But my life is about as close to being ruined as anybody’s life could be,” Miller admitted one recent day while sitting in the tiny East San Diego apartment off El Cajon Boulevard that he shares with Caroline. "I'm not free. I’m never going to be free of this thing.” Even when his probation ends in three more years, he faces a lifelong California requirement to carry a card identifying him as a convicted sex offender; every time he moves, he will have to report to local police.
He says, "Sure it’s sad to have an injustice happen to you in life. We all have them.” But Miller says of all that’s happened to him, most insupportable, most unbelievable has been "the loss of my parenthood.” Again he fights the tears. “I’ll never forgive this damned society for that. I had the life experience to be a father. I was trained to be a father.... I love my daughters. And I wouldn't molest them. I wouldn't subject them to that! I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do believe in the sacredness of the biology of parenthood.” Almost two years have passed since he has seen his daughters. "I miss them more than my next breath,” he says. So next month he plans to go once again before Judge Gill, to ask that his probation be modified to allow for him once again to visit his children. Miller probably will present to the judge psychological literature that states that — even where incest has unequivocally occurred — the best course for the family is some form of reunification, in which healing can begin to take place. Miller also will point out that he has technically fulfilled all the conditions of his probation. He fully expects his probation officer, however, to report that Miller has been persistently hostile and uncooperative. "I’m being an obstructive asshole in their view.” Miller readily acknowledges. Though he sees a therapist weekly, in accordance with Gill’s orders, "I hate it,” he says venomously. "I hate everything about it." Miller wistfully says his father — who died of a heart attack a week and a half after Miller’s preliminary hearing — “was very much a fierce individualist. And I’m very much my father’s son. I’m not a good ass-kisser.”
"I will concede he seems earnest," says Rempel, the assistant district attorney. "But I think police officers will probably tell you that it’s easier to get a guy to admit to murder than it is to get him to admit to child molest." Miller has heard this argument, heard it in his own head. "To anything I say, they will say, ‘Yeah, we’re not surprised. That’s what a molester would say.’ ” Maybe, Miller says, his eyes growing distant, the judge and probation officer will look at him and figure that Miller somehow has lost touch with what really happened, has come genuinely to believe his own innocence — in spite of his guilt. Then Miller’s eyes focus. He shakes his head incredulously. "I think like that now.”