Kevin Cody

McMartin Preschool defender Dean Gits was artful, thoughtful attorney

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McMartin Preschool attorney Gits

Judge William Ponders looks on as Peggy Buckey’s defense attorney Dean Gits points to a chart listing different investigators assigned to the McMartin Preshool case during opening arguments in July 1987. Photo by Dwight Ueda

During opening arguments of the McMartin Preschool trial, in July 1987, defense attorney Dean Gits told jurors, “Once you have identified the enemy, you will have solved the case.”

Then he named the people he considered to be the principal victims in the case — the children and their families and the Buckey family, who owned the preschool.

“There is also one more victim, whom I won’t name,” he added. “But before this is over you’ll know who it is…It is the same person as the enemy.”

The literary framing of the opening argument was characteristic of the soft-spoken attorney’s thoughtfully crafted arguments, which demanded and trusted in a thoughtful jury.

Gits died last week of cancer at the age of 68. At the time of his death, he was the chief deputy of the Federal Public Defender’s Office for California.

Gits joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office shortly after obtaining his law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.

At the start of the McMartin trial, he told the Easy Reader that he became a public defender rather than a prosecutor because “there are plenty of good attorneys to prosecute the accused, but not many to defend them.”

Gits left the public defender’s office in 1981 for private practice. But in 1984 he was asked by the court to represent Peggy Buckey, who had been found indigent after losing her home and preschool to legal costs. The judge told Gits the case was expected to be a long one -– at least three months. The jury returned its verdict six years later, making it the longest, most costly criminal trial in California history.

Peggy Buckey was acquitted of all 13 counts against her. Her son Raymond, who was represented by attorney Daniel Davis, was charged with 52 counts. The jury split on 13 of his counts and acquitted him on the others. Raymond Buckey was retried, but again the prosecution failed to win a conviction on a single count.

Gits’s opening argument was three hours long. Much of that time was spent recounting the prosecution’s efforts to find corroborating evidence for the children’s chilling allegations.

The DA assigned five full-time investigators to the case, he noted. Children’s Institute International assigned two full-time therapists and a physician. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s 22-member task force interviewed 695 families. The Manhattan Beach Police and FBI also assigned investigators to the case.

“What did they do?” Gits asked.

They searched 21 residences, 37 cars, three motorcycles and one farm. They investigated a church, two food markets, two car washes, two airports, one photo studio, one exercise club and one national park.

The cost of the investigation was over $1 million, he said.

“The results? It depends on whom you ask. As far as the DA is concerned, it was a zero. No evidence to corroborate the children’s statements was found.

“But to the defense,” Gits said, “Every rock overturned was really affirmative defense evidence.”

In his closing argument, in October 1989, Gits promised to disclose the unnamed enemy and the unnamed victim he had referred to in his opening argument.

But first, he told the jurors, “There are two tools I need you to use.” He walked up to a chalkboard at the front of the courtroom and wrote, “Common sense. Reasonable doubt.”

“Common sense, that’s what this case is all about.”

“The first step, the one that ought to raise reasonable doubt is this,” he said, approaching an eight-foot square chart mounted on an easel and covered by butcher paper.

He tore away the butcher paper to reveal 8×10 photographs of the nine children who testified that they were molested by the Buckeys.

Beneath the children’s photos were 43 more photographs, of former preschool teachers, mailmen, servicemen, neighbors and the children’s parents, all of whom had also testified.

“They claim they didn’t see any molestations. Something is terribly wrong with this case,” he said.

“What is the prosecution’s theory – that all the teachers are lying? So the teachers are lying. What about the neighbors? Are they a bunch of liars? If so, what about the parents who came and went on a regular basis?”

The prosecution contended throughout the trial that people don’t want to believe that sexual abuse takes place. Gits agreed that society’s denial played a major role in the case. But the denial he identified was people not wanting to believe that children can be led to believe they were molested.

“Because if that is true, why can’t we all be led to believe things that didn’t happen? That’s the horror of this situation,” Gits said.

The enemy,” he continued, “is us. It is our inability to accept that our environment can control major aspects of our lives.”

Following the high profile case, Gits avoided the limelight, declining to participate in Raymond Buckey’s retrial and avoiding public attention. Instead, he devoted much of is time to defending inmates on California’s death row.

Davis, Buckey’s attorney, said that even during the widely publicized trial Gits made a point of “taking one step to the side to keep out of the limelight.”

“You’d see me on camera and off to the side was half of Dean’s shoulder,”Davis said.

Gits aversion to public attention coupled with Davis’ propensity for manipulating the media  helped the defense to nearly win a mistrial.

“Shortly before the start of the trial Abby Mann [Academy Award winning writer of “Judgment at “Nuremberg] enlisted one of the McMartin prosecutors, Deputy DA Glenn Stevens, to participate in a book about the case,” Davis recalled.  “Then Mann thought he could enlist mild mannered, unimposing Dean Gits. Dean didn’t want the attention he knew a book would bring. But instead of slamming the door on Mann, he opened the back door for me to meet Mann. It was a great opportunity to find out what the prosecution’s plan was. I spent many long evenings at Mann’s home listening to Glenn Stevens’ tapes.”

After leaning all he could hope to learn from the tapes, Davis told Mann the tapes must be turned over to the court as evidence. On the tapes Stevens acknowledged that the prosecution had no direct evidence to support the charges, but was forging ahead on the assumption that evidence would eventually turn up. Davis and Gits used the tapes in a motion for dismissal. The mistrial motion was denied, but the prosecution’s case was severely damaged.

“From jury selection to motions, to final arguments Dean was always the same steady, consistent and competent attorney. He was the silent force and brains behind the defense. He worked too hard and he died too young,” Davis said.

Gits is survived by his wife Christina Larson Gits, who worked with him on death row cases, brothers Al and Gary, daughter Tracy Torres and stepdaughter Lori Cote, five grand children and two great-grandchildren. ER