What Katelyn Saw
When A Child Claimed to See Abuse at My Day Care, My Life Was Nearly Destroyed
Editor’s Note: In March 2010, 49-year-old Lynn Moller, a day care provider in Madison, Wisconsin, was found guilty of three counts of child abuse involving two children in her care. Moller had run her day care without incident for 16 years when the allegations first surfaced; she has never wavered in her claims of innocence despite losing every appeal.
As The Reporters Inc. continues production of its upcoming documentary about wrongful convictions, The Innocent Convicts, we’ll also be featuring the online insights of others who’ve faced similar ordeals. In this fascinating first-person account, Moller takes us step by step through a multi-year nightmare that turned her world upside down.
Police and prosecutors still maintain she’s guilty, but for the first time Lynn is telling her side of the story in hopes that people will come to understand that, sometimes, the truth doesn’t always prevail in our criminal justice system.
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“I do not think that you can get a fair child abuse trial before a jury anywhere in the country…I do not care how sophisticated or law smart jurors are, when they hear that a child has been abused, a piece of their mind closes up, and this goes for the judge, the jurors, and all of us.” –Abner Mivka, Former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals/District of Columbia Circuit
BY LYNN MOLLER
Painfully shy. Meek as a mouse. Reticent. Reserved. Those were accurate descriptions of me as a child and young adult. Social situations were uncomfortable and awkward for me. With age and maturity, I came out of my shell, but I’ve always remained an introvert.
However, there’s one group of people with whom I shine–young children. I’ve always enjoyed being with kids, and my normal inhibitions and shyness disappear in my interactions with them. From an early age, I knew I wanted a career working with children. So, upon my college graduation in 1984, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin to begin my calling as a preschool teacher.
In 1992, as my husband Ki and I excitedly awaited the birth of our first child, I decided to open up my own family childcare business. It was a wonderful way for me to care for my own child and keep my career. I obtained a state license for family childcare and welcomed the first group of babies into my home. My business grew and thrived.
In 2002 we had the opportunity to build a house, and we designed it with a dedicated space for my child care business, complete with its own entrance, bathroom, kitchenette, play area, and storage. I was thrilled with my new dream day care space. I could do so much more with the kids, and at the end of the day I just walked upstairs to “go home.” I had so much fun planning and carrying out activities for the kids I loved so much. Life was good.
Until it wasn’t.
To quote from one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story, “Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.” Ralphie’s family lost their Christmas dinner; I lost my career, my dignity, my savings, and, most of all, my respect for the justice system.
The life-changing request came in early August 2008 from “Carol,” the mother of one of my day care kids. (For the purposes of this Reporters Inc. article I’m changing the names of all of the parents and children involved in my case.) She was in need of childcare for her six-year-old daughter for a couple days later in the month, and asked if I would be able to accommodate her. I knew her daughter “Katelyn”–I had her in my care when she was two and three, and I still saw her from time to time when she came with her mom to pick up her little brother, “Joshua.”
After receiving Carol’s request, I thought it would be fun to have Katelyn back and she could be my helper for those days. So, with no hesitation, I told Carol I’d be able to help her out.
No good deed goes unpunished, right? Little did I know the impact that decision would have. That little girl would soon allege that I was harming a child in my care, an allegation that quickly spun my life out of control.
An Allegation Leads to an Empty Day Care
I learned of Katelyn’s claims when Carol called me later and said she had made the decision to place Joshua in a different day care, starting immediately. No explanation to me was forthcoming, other than that another day care had an opening that she wanted for her son. That was a surprise to me, especially since we had previously agreed that Joshua would be with me for another full year. Plus, Joshua had some neurological issues and was physically behind other three-year-olds, so I didn’t think a move to a large preschool was in his best interest.
I tried to press Carol for more information and asked if she was unhappy with me; she finally grudgingly admitted that Katelyn had seen something when she was in my care those two days. Katelyn told her that another one of my little guys, two-year-old “Jeremy,” (again, the name has been changed) seemed “so sad.”
Carol hinted that this child’s supposed sadness made for a less than desirable environment for Joshua, so she thought it best to pull Joshua from my care. Yes, I had noted a recent regression in Jeremy’s behavior; it concerned me and prompted me to work with him on specific strategies for playing with and interacting with the other children. He was the only child in my care that cried regularly, and at times appeared sad, for reasons I was not always aware. The other kids never seemed bothered by him, so this decision by Carol to pull Joshua due to Jeremy’s sadness struck me as very odd.
But of course it was her prerogative to withdraw her child. I assured her that Joshua would be welcome back if his new place didn’t work out, we discussed final payment obligations, and then we parted ways. It was always hard on me when a child left, but normally it was due to them aging out of my care.
Three weeks passed and I focused on providing my remaining day care children with fun and enriching activities. Around this time, one of my other parents actually asked me if I had any openings for a friend’s child. With Joshua gone I did have a vacant spot, so I took this as the opportunity to inform all of the parents who had kids in my care that he was leaving. These parents also expressed surprise, but no one expressed shock or any other dramatic emotion.
But then, things quickly turned bizarre. One by one, the rest of the day care families began dropping out of my care with no logical explanations. What the heck was going on?
It wasn’t until my day care state licensor paid me a visit, saying there had been a complaint filed against me, that I grasped the gravity of the situation. She reported that a six-year-old girl claimed I was banging a child’s head into the wall.
Banging a child’s head into the wall? Who does that? Certainly not me! I just about laughed at the licensor’s statement until I realized she was dead serious.
What Katelyn Saw
The only six-year-old in my care in the recent past had been Katelyn, so I assumed the report must have come from her. Indeed, this ended up being the case.
Katelyn stated that this alleged abuse happened while I was changing Jeremy’s diaper in the bathroom and she was on a nearby wooden climber/loft. Again, not only did any abuse not happen, I immediately knew that due to the physical layout of my day care space, the diaper-changing area in the bathroom couldn’t even be seen from the location of the wooden climber. That climber was located directly across from the bathroom in the corner on the far wall, in the main room of the day care. (Aside from the bathroom, there was basically only one large, open space used for the day care facility.)
Perched on that climber and looking toward the bathroom, one would be able see the shower and part of the toilet, but not the countertop where I changed diapers.
This photo, taken by a private investigator Lynn hired in her defense, was shot from the climber/loft where “Katelyn” claimed she was standing when she saw “Jeremy” being abused. Lynn is posing in the bathroom as if she were changing a diaper; a sliver of her backside appears. The photo is meant to show that the actual diaper-changing station can’t be seen from this vantage point, thus negating Katelyn’s allegation.
I explained this fact to the licensor and asked if she wanted to check out the view; she said it wasn’t necessary. I speculated that Katelyn had heard the cabinet door beneath the diaper changing station bang shut and this, along with Jeremy’s tendency to whine when getting his diaper changed, allowed her imagination to run.
The licensor said her department would continue to investigate. I dubbed Katelyn “The Girl with X-ray Vision,” due to her apparent ability to see (nonexistent abuse) through walls! At this point I simply couldn’t believe anything would come of this clearly erroneous allegation.
Days came and went and I heard nothing. I became worried and stressed, but optimistic that eventually I would hear back from the day care licensing department saying that this was all a misunderstanding, and I could return to running my day care.
To my surprise, however, on October 2, 2008 (a day I’ll never forget), two police detectives from the Madison Police Department showed up at my door. They introduced themselves and asked me if we could discuss the situation. Alarms should have been going off in my head, but I had nothing to hide so I agreed to talk to them.
Protect, Serve…and Lie?
I had always respected police authority and trusted them.
The detectives asked if they could tape our conversation. I agreed because, again, I had no secrets, I’d done nothing wrong, and I was more than willing to make that clear. I also thought it would be helpful to have the facts documented. (As a result, all of the forthcoming quotes attributed to the officers are taken directly from the transcript of the actual recording that day.)
The detectives began telling me that every child in my care had either witnessed or been a victim of abusive behavior by me. What? I had never hurt a child in my life, and now I was being bombarded by persistent accusations and demands for explanations.
“You know, the thing that concerns me,” said one of the detectives, “is that I have all of the little kids pretty much telling me the same story, that you smack the heads against the wall, that you bang their heads against the wall and they cry and you’re mean and you do mean things to them and they weren’t coached by their parents. These kids are too young to be coached, to be so consistent with all of this stuff.”
She continued, “The reason I’m here is because there’s multiple times, multiple incidents, multiple children telling us of injury, bruising, and crying. I just want to know if there’s an explanation, if you’re a little stressed out, if the kids are getting to you. You’ve been doing this a long time. Why do you think the kids would say this if it isn’t true?”
And there was more: ““I have to be honest with you, too, that the DA’s office, you know, if you did something you need to make it right. You need to talk about it. You need to bring it out, take responsibility, so that we can deal with this and move on. And no matter what you tell me today, I’m not arresting you. You’re not going to jail. Right now I’m just investigating. I’m just trying to find out what happened. No matter what you tell me, we’re going to walk out the door and you’re going to stay home tonight, if that’s a concern.”
D.A., jail, arrest? This detective was throwing words at me so fast but those are the only ones I heard. I felt nauseous and, if I wasn’t sitting down, likely would have fainted. She was asking for an explanation. How do I explain all these accusations? Believing that police don’t lie, I was astonished to hear that all the kids were saying these things.
Allegation Number 2
The detective then threw down a series of photos of Joshua. “So when Joshua was a year and a half and not really mobile, how do you explain these bruises on the side of his head?”
I was flabbergasted. The photos showed Joshua standing in a bathtub, with some bruises on the left side of his face. The pictures were stamped with the date May 16, 2006. The detective said, “His mom says he came home from day care that way. What did you do to Joshua?”
Her tone was nasty. I just kept looking at the photos.
“Something happened, Lynn. They were concerned enough to take the photos.”
I told the detectives about the logbook I was required by the state to keep, to document injuries the children received in my care. In it, there was no documentation of these bruises to Joshua back in 2006. Where did these pictures come from? I had absolutely no recollection of Joshua having any injury or bruises, and I don’t recall Carol speaking to me about such. If anything had happened, or if Carol had spoken to me about “suspicious” bruises, I would have documented it in my logbook.
The detective asked for a copy of my logbook; foolishly, I gave her one.
I was astonished to hear that there was evidence against me that I could not explain. Based on the way the detective was accusing me, I almost believed I’d actually done something wrong, but I had no memory of doing so. Was I some sort of Jekyll/Hyde character? I tried to explain what the kids possibly were seeing or hearing, but the detectives (I would later learn) took these statements as admissions that I had done something wrong.
In my vulnerable state, I lost the ability for self-defense as I tried to make sense of the accusations thrown at me. All the assertiveness skills I had worked so hard to cultivate in the past 30 years were wiped out in an instant as harsh words from the detectives washed over me. I quickly reverted back to my childhood traits of submissiveness, timidity, and an inability to stand up for myself. The detectives brushed off any attempts I made to deny allegations; they would quickly change the direction of their questioning any time I said “no” or gave an outright denial.
I was an innocent person confronted with ridiculous allegations of child abuse. I naively trusted the detectives not to lie, and my natural reaction was confusion and hopelessness.
One of the detectives kept hinting that I was stressed out, which she said would explain my behavior. “You’re frustrated and perhaps things just happen. People can understand that because we’re all human. I haven’t met a perfect human being. We get angry. We have good days and we have bad days.”
It was a mentally exhausting interview. How did suspects survive hours and hours of these interrogation tactics? After an hour and a half I was more confused than ever. I just wanted them to leave and be finished with the psychological intensity of their questioning. I think I would have admitted to any famous unsolved crime just to get them out of my house. They finally did leave, with parting words that they would be meeting with the district attorney to discuss the situation.
I don’t know how I functioned afterwards. I called Ki at work in a panic, telling him what had transpired with these detectives. He came rushing home, upset that I had let them in our home. He said that we needed to quickly find an attorney.
A person with a stronger personality or one who had more experience with the police likely would have asked for a lawyer when accosted by those detectives. I made the classic mistake–thinking I didn’t need one if I was innocent, as that would only make me look guilty. On the contrary–that would have made me look smart. Lesson learned, albeit too late.
I had never had any need for legal representation before, and didn’t even know where to start. Fortunately, a good friend, and former day care parent, had a recommendation.
I met with an attorney. He said the allegations against me were absurd, especially after seeing for himself how Katelyn’s claims of seeing abuse in the bathroom from the other room simply couldn’t have happened. He agreed to represent me; I was thankful, but I kind of felt like I was closing the barn door after the cows escaped. Why had I let those detectives in to my home? I have chided myself about that ever since.
For the next few weeks, I heard nothing. The attorney called a few times just to say that this was normal and he hadn’t heard anything, either. I was a zombie. I couldn’t eat and lost a lot of weight in a short time, not a healthy thing to do. I had nightmares. I had a constant feeling of dread and a persistent knot in my stomach.
Innocent people under a cloud of suspicion by the authorities live in a constant state of fear; every time the doorbell rang I thought it was the police coming to arrest me. Even to this day, the sound of someone knocking on our front door or ringing the bell causes my heart to skip a beat.
I don’t know how I got through the days. Ki was very worried about me, and made sure that I had friends coming over when possible to keep me company. He wanted me to talk about my feelings, but I just couldn’t get any words out. I attempted to keep up a good attitude for the sake of my sons, but when they weren’t around I fell apart. Why was this happening to me? What had I done to piss off these parents–people I had considered family–who were now turning on me?
The Charges, and a Rejected Plea
At the end of October 2008, my attorney called me with devastating news. He said the assistant district attorney assigned to my case was going to charge me with two counts of reckless child abuse. One was for the alleged act that Katelyn “witnessed.” This prosecutor said this (nonexistent!) abusive act resulted in dramatic injuries to Jeremy. By this time I was able to locate some photos I had taken of Jeremy just days after this alleged incident. They clearly showed his face–injury free.
The second charge would be for another instance of alleged abuse to Jeremy, which supposedly took place in September 2008. On this day, he tripped on a rug at my house and fell into the edge of a door. The result was a small forehead bump, a normal toddler injury. It had been properly documented in my logbook and explained to the parents at pick up time. And now it was being used against me as an abuse allegation.
Hearing that I was to be charged with two felony counts sent me into a full-blown panic attack. I had never experienced one before. I couldn’t stop crying. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t catch my breath. My body was shaking. I felt like I had completely lost control. These symptoms were enough to worry my family and send me to the emergency room where I was given anxiety medication. That took the edge off, but I could never shake the impending sense of doom.
I was quickly immersed into the criminal justice system. I had never had any experience with the courts before; I didn’t know case law from a case of soda! OK, so that’s an exaggeration, but my point is that it never affected me until now. Terms I had heard on TV all came to life: criminal complaint, status conference, arraignment, appearance, preliminary hearing, motion hearing.
I dreaded any time I had to go to the courthouse. Because of my shy demeanor, I’ve always wanted to remain under the radar, and I absolutely hated the attention that came with my involuntary plunge into the legal waters. I had to endure the humiliating booking process. The presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” may exist in theory, but I can vouch that there is no such feeling when faced with the nasty looks of a prosecutor or the jail clerk taking your mug shot.
I was offered a plea deal by the prosecution, called the First Offenders Program. If I would accept responsibility for what I did, and meet the conditions of this program, eventually I would have my record wiped clean. Boy, if I were guilty I would have jumped at that opportunity. But I would not, in good conscience, admit to something I did not do, especially when it involved children that I had loved and cared for. I could sure see how many innocent people would take a plea deal, just in the hope of ending the constant anguish. But I wasn’t going to do it.
My attorney informed me that he had obtained a video from Safe Harbor, a child advocacy center in Madison. Children who are victims or witnesses to abuse can go there to recount what they saw, or what they experience. The purpose of this place is so kids can tell their story one time, instead of having to repeat it over and over in court proceedings (which can be just as damaging as the actual abuse, according to some child abuse experts).
Katelyn was interviewed there about three weeks after her initial allegation. I watched the video of her testimony with my attorney. (Forthcoming quotes from that video are taken directly from a Safe Harbor transcript of the video.)
The interviewer asked her if she had ever seen anyone get hurt. “At Lynn’s, um Jeremy,” she said. “It looked like in the bathroom, when Lynn was changing Jeremy’s diaper, she would put his head, like slamming against the wall, Jeremy’s head against the wall.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The interviewer asked Katelyn if this was something she saw with her eyes or just heard. “I heard and saw with my eyes. I just saw her, I saw her leg and like Jeremy’s head bumping against the wall. I heard Jeremy’s head bumping against the wall.”
It continued on like this, much to my dismay.
Interviewer: Did anybody else see Jeremy’s head being banged against the wall?
Interviewer: You told me that you went to Lynn’s day care a couple of times. Did you ever see anything else like that?
Interviewer: Did you ever see Lynn hurt anybody else?
Katelyn: Yeah, Sarah. (Again, another name I’ve changed for the purposes of this story.)
Interviewer: What did you see with Sarah?
Katelyn: Well, Lynn picked her up and kind of banged her head on the wall, but not in the bathroom. I don’t know where it happened.
Interviewer: Tell me everything you remember about when Sarah was banged.
Katelyn: I don’t remember. Well, all of us were eating lunch, and then Lynn just came over and pulled Sarah’s chair back and carried her into the playroom.
Interviewer: Did Lynn say anything?
Interviewer: What happened once they got in the playroom?
Katelyn: Sarah’s head banged against the wall.
Interviewer: Did you see Sarah’s head get banged against the wall?
Interviewer: Did you hear something?
Katelyn: I heard her banging against the wall and I saw Lynn like carrying her over there.
Interviewer: Did Sarah say anything or make any noise?
Interviewer: When Lynn pulled Sarah’s chair out and carried her into the playroom, was Lynn happy or mad or something else?
Katelyn: She was happy.
Interviewer: You told me that Sarah banged her head on the wall, but it was not something you saw but something you heard. How do you know it was Sarah’s head that got banged against the wall?
Katelyn: Because she was the only one who was out there and everybody else was eating.
Interviewer: What made you think it was Sarah’s head that got banged and not another part of her body?
Katelyn: I don’t know.
Interviewer: Have you ever seen any other kids get hurt at Lynn’s day care?
Interviewer: Did you ever see Jeremy get hurt any other time besides when he was getting his diaper changed?
I just shook my head listening to Katelyn’s claims of me “banging” Jeremy and Sarah’s heads. It was all so absurd, so false.
I had a preliminary hearing in early January 2009. Among those testifying was Jeremy’s mom; she said that Jeremy had “dramatic injuries” on two occasions at my home. Yes, he bumped his head in September 2008 resulting in that tiny lump on his forehead, and I had informed his parents at that time. And yes, he’d had other minor bumps and bruises during his year and a half with me but, again, they were never thought by the parents to be anything other than normal toddler incidents. (Because that’s what they were.)
Jeremy’s mom offered no photos or doctor reports to substantiate her claims. The judge, however found that there was probable cause, so the charges were indeed bound over for trial.
But that wasn’t all.
The prosecutor dropped a bombshell by saying she’d be adding two more charges! I wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and never come out. What was going on? My attorney’s theory was that the prosecutor knew the first charge, Katelyn’s allegation, would be easy for me to defend, so she had to add more charges to buttress her case.
The first of these new charges was for an alleged second injury to Jeremy in September 2008. This supposedly happened on the same day he fell into the door edge and sustained a forehead bump. I racked my brain. He had some crud behind his ear that I thought might be a skin infection at the time; how on earth could I have caused that?
The second of the two new charges was for the bruising to Joshua’s face that allegedly occurred on May 16, 2006. Again, the first I’d ever heard of these bruises was during the police interview at my home when the detective threw those photos at me and demanded to know what I did to him. There was no record of anything remotely related to this in my logbook, and his mother Carol had continued to send him to my day care for two and half more years. Why on earth would she keep her kid in my care if she suspected abuse?
Prosecutors said this photo, entered into evidence and presented to the jury during trial, shows an injury “Jeremy” suffered while in Lynn’s care in September 2008. Lynn says she remembers the discolored skin behind his ear as some kind of skin infection. She didn’t think it was bruising—and even if it was, she denies having caused it.
Prosecutors said this photo, entered into evidence and presented to the jury during trial, shows bruises on “Joshua’s” face suffered while in Lynn’s care in May 2006. Lynn denies causing the bruises; in fact, she says she has no recollection of ever seeing bruises on his face.
The prosecutor also wanted to be able to introduce other injuries to kids that supposedly occurred in my care, including the one to Sarah that Katelyn described in her Safe Harbor interview.
Most of these were based on entries in my logbook – the very thing that was supposed to protect me against outrageous allegations of child abuse! But instead, this requirement by the state was now being used against me–injuries listed in the book were all now being suspected as cases of abuse. My head was spinning.
And it’s not like there were even that many injuries or incidents that occurred in my day care. Yes, there were the occasional minor bumps and bruise–as there are in every single day care center, every single day, around the country. But the fact of that matter is that no child ever had to seek medical care for any injury occurring on my watch. Parents had never had any reason to suspect these isolated prior injuries of being anything other than normal and reasonable in the course of daily day care events. Once Katelyn’s statement surfaced, however, the snowball of suspicion started rolling.
I was now facing four reckless child abuse felony charges. Me! A mild mannered soul who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. (I always tried to shoo bugs back outside rather than kill them!) But now I had become this monster who inflicted bruises on young children.
My attorney entered ‘not guilty’ pleas on my behalf for all charges. The judge ordered me to have no contact with any of the families or children, and to cease any involvement in the day care business. I only had to sign a signature bond, so thankfully I didn’t have to post any money. I just had to report to the jail for the booking process of fingerprinting and mug shot. Then I could go home.
Lynn’s mug shot.
The Judge’s Logic
At a motion hearing in July 2009, the judge ruled that evidence of other injuries would not be allowed. He acknowledged that parents of the other children with the alleged injuries never considered them serious or suspicious at the time.
“Nor did these parents feel the necessity to contact any investigative authorities,” he said. “In fact, none of those allegations were voiced by any parent until other parents or authorities contacted them in the course of this current investigation. Furthermore, none of the parents opted to remove their children from Moller’s care.”
Just as my attorney had said earlier, the judge said that the state was simply trying to bolster its case against me with “evidence” that was ultimately irrelevant.
As I understood it, this ruling also meant that Katelyn’s claim about me abusing Sarah would be disallowed as well.
The Reid Technique
Another interesting development at this hearing occurred when my attorney called to the stand one of the police detectives who had interviewed me in my home. He confronted her about what she had told me during that awful interrogation, during which she stated that every child in my care had said I was abusive.
My attorney had her written reports, and they didn’t jibe with what she told me; in fact, the only children who reported anything to her were Katelyn and her little brother, Joshua. My attorney asked the detective to confirm that she had told me that all seven of the kids in my care at the time were telling stories of abuse; she admitted she had done so. The judge agreed that the detective’s deceit was now part of the record.
I had fallen into the trap of the Reid Technique, a ploy used by police to elicit confessions from innocent persons. This technique is less about finding truth as it is about using psychological manipulation and relentless pressure to get a confession, even if it means lying to the suspect and using trickery or deceit. Most people are surprised to learn this is entirely legal. Who would have thought that police officers, sworn to serve and protect their citizenry, are also allowed to lie to them?
Police use the Reid Technique because they know how vulnerable the average person, accused of wrongdoing, feels–and they’ll take full advantage of this. Even if you don’t give a confession, you could be manipulated into saying enough to give a prosecutor evidence to convict you. That’s what happened to me. Had the detectives been truthful with me about their interviews with the kids, I would have been in a much better state of mind to deal with the allegations and not gone catatonic from hearing false stories.
Inching Towards Trial
I had a second preliminary during which the prosecution brought in a child abuse specialist who claimed that the bruises on Joshua’s face in those May 16, 2006 photos represented “adult inflicted fingertip injuries” that were “gravely concerning for child abuse.” I found it perplexing that she could make a diagnosis based only on photos, without ever having seen the child. With the bar for probable cause at a preliminary hearing so low, it was no surprise that this charge was bound over for trial.
For a brief moment I reconsidered taking the plea deal. The deck seemed to be stacked against me–did I want to risk taking this to trial? But the thought was fleeting. I would not admit to hurting these children for the sake of a plea bargain. This is the innocent person’s dilemma–caught in a Catch 22 where you either maintain integrity and refuse to admit to something you didn’t do, or lie by admitting guilt to achieve a better outcome.
My own family and all the day care families I had cared for over the years needed to know I was ready and willing to fight these charges.
My siblings, dad, many friends, and other extended family members had already made plans to attend at least some of the trial. I greatly appreciated their unwavering support. I gave permission for my sons, Evan and Aaron, to miss that week of school so they could also attend. They were 17 and 15 at the time. It was terrible that they had to watch their mom go through this. It was a cruel lesson for them, and greatly affected their view on life. Had they been younger or older, I wondered if the impact would have been as dramatic for them. Being teenagers, this was a difficult and awkward time for them anyway, without the addition of a family crisis. Their high school years would always be tarnished by this attack on their mother. Plus, I feel guilty that I may have neglected their needs due to my zombie-like state for so much of the time.
Trial was set for the first week of March 2010.
My attorney called me in early December 2009 with unexpected and shattering news. He explained that he had some health issues and would not be able to see my case through to trial. I just about dropped the phone. What else could go wrong for me? I didn’t see how the trial could go on as planned in March. A new attorney would never be able to get up to speed on this complex case. Would the judge even allow me to postpone the trial due to this new complication? My attorney said he would do whatever he could to ease the transition. I had no doubt about that, but it was still doubtful that whoever replaced him could or would be prepared in time. My attorney recommended a colleague of his; he said that he had already spoken to him about the case. Not knowing where else to turn and pressured by the trial in the very near future, I agreed to meet with him.
At the same time, I was concerned about how I would pay for a new attorney. I’d already paid the first one a great deal of money. Now I had to come up with more. The average person doesn’t have a contingency fund for legal expenses, and I was no different. I hadn’t been working for more than a year, and our savings were quickly dwindling. Our expenses (mortgage, etc.) were based on both Ki and I having good paying jobs, and my job had been ripped away from me–25 years building a career wiped out with one false allegation. There were no other jobs that I wanted or felt qualified for, and, with my future uncertain, I hadn’t wanted to pursue employment until after the trial.
The new attorney was an extremely nice man, and I felt an immediate connection with him. We talked about my case, and he did indeed appear to be familiar with it, as my first attorney assured me. I told him my concern about the trial being so close. While he stated that he, too, would like more time, he said that he’d be ready. We discussed payment of his fees; he was willing to work with me on a payment schedule.
I think I liked this new guy so much because his personality and style seemed so similar to mine. In hindsight, however, I needed an attorney who had the exact opposite style from me–someone who was aggressive and not afraid to confront the antagonists in my case. Turns out that Attorney #2 would do me no favors with his nice guy persona and low-key manner.
I met with him several times over the next few weeks to go over the case. Attorney #1’s defense strategy had been to present my case as a “house of cards” with Katelyn’s allegation as the base; discredit that and the whole thing would tumble down. Attorney #2’s take on the case was similar; he likened it (Katelyn’s accusation) to a spark that sets off a wildfire. I thought that both of these analogies would make good opening statements to a jury.
The Katelyn Conundrum
Throughout this whole ordeal, I wondered why Katelyn’s statements were taken as gospel by investigators and prosecutors. Katelyn “seeing” the abuse was just speculative, a mistaken perception. Her mom just automatically assumed that she was telling the truth? If Carol had done any investigation right away this would have all been over. It wouldn’t have taken much on her part–asking Katelyn to show her where she was when she saw this.
Believe me, after I heard Katelyn’s allegation, I checked the view from the climber to the bathroom from every angle in my day care room. I asked others to do so, also. I twisted and contorted from every possible position; I even tried getting up in the windowsill to see how far into the bathroom I could see. There was absolutely no view to the diaper changing area unless you were right in the bathroom doorway. (Editor’s Note: Click Here to watch a video that a private investigator Lynn hired recorded inside Lynn’s day care. It’s taken from the spot “Katelyn” says she witnessed Lynn abusing “Jeremy.” The video wasn’t allowed in trial; the jurors never saw it.)
If my child had said something like that, I would have gone all out to make him accountable for his statements. It’s one thing when kids make things up–which they do and should do to strengthen creativity and imagination–but there’s a big difference between fanciful childhood tales and allegations that will ruin someone’s life.
I know we need to be open to children’s statements, and many times they do tell us or try to tell us that something is wrong. But believing everything a child says without investigation does no one any favors and gives way too much power to the child.
Tunnel vision led everyone to think that I had abused children, when in fact there was no abuse! Conclusions were drawn without proper investigation. Had I been banging Jeremy’s head into the wall on a daily basis, there surely would have been some evidence on my wall–hair, blood, DNA. No forensic investigation was ever done. And how, if I was banging the back of Jeremy’s head, did he obtain bruises on the front of his head (which were the actual injury claims)?
New Discovery That Raises Reasonable Doubt
The last pre-trial hearing was set just days before the trial. We received a box of discovery from the prosecution. It contained Joshua’s medical records from his primary care doctor. I noted on the cover sheet that they had only been requested days earlier. I told Attorney #2 I would read them that afternoon. As I left the courthouse I thought, “The next time I’m here will be for the trial.” I still couldn’t believe I was in this situation. Would I ever wake up from this nightmare?
I was anxious to look through those medical reports. I was hoping to find something to clear me of the Joshua charge. The reports were all authored by his pediatrician. The records dealt with his regular checkups, visits for minor things like a cold or ear infection, and the appointments leading up to his diagnosis with the neurological condition he suffered from.
And then I found it! I saw these words: “This 13 month-old-comes in with Mom because she is worried about some bruising and sores around the ears and the cheeks.” As I looked closer, I noticed that the date of the report was May 15th, 2006, a day before Carol told police the bruises appeared.
This report said the bruises had been present for three to four days, in complete contrast to Carol saying they appeared on May 16th, 2006 when Joshua came home from daycare. The medical report stated that she was worried about his underlying neurological condition, not abuse.
The doctor wrote that he didn’t see any bruising on the head or by the ear, maybe just a bit of discoloration on the cheek that might be a bruise.
During the preliminary hearing, Carol had testified–under oath–that there was no bruising on Joshua on the morning of May 16, 2006 when she dropped him off at my house, but there were bruises when she picked him up. This testimony convinced the judge that there was probable cause for me to go to trial. Why would she bring him to an appointment on the 15th if she claims the bruises didn’t occur until the 16th? And what about her statement to the doctor that the bruises had been present for three to four days? This just didn’t make any sense.
I ran the report over to Attorney #2 who, for some reason, didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. In fact, his reaction to this report was puzzling; he asked how this discovery helped us. I was baffled by his response; this was clearly a new exculpatory piece of evidence. (“Exculpatory” was another new word I learned during this ordeal–it’s the kind of evidence that’s favorable to a defendant and can remove notions of guilt.)
Attorney #2 said he would “have to think” about this new information and how to use it. I left his office with an uneasy feeling. I didn’t expect him to jump for joy, but I certainly felt that he should be happy we found some evidence to contradict Carol’s claim. At the very minimum, I felt that this report raised reasonable doubt about how those bruises on Joshua’s face came to be. I started to get the foreboding feeling that maybe Attorney #2 wasn’t up to speed. After all, he hadn’t been on the case during Carol’s preliminary testimony in which she adamantly said that those bruises weren’t there on the morning of May 16th. I just hoped that over the next few days he’d get on top of things.
The Trial Begins
The trial date arrived. I was as ready as I could be. Nervous, of course, but still optimistic that I could beat this.
My big concern was how to prove a negative–that no abuse ever happened. It was especially concerning when it had become clear to me from the preliminary hearings and interviews that the parents and the detective were willing to lie.
Again, the charges as I knew them to be, and their defenses, were:
- Katelyn claiming that she saw me bang Jeremy’s head while changing his diaper. I thought this charge could be easily fought by showing jurors the layout of the rooms, discrediting Katelyn’s “X-ray vision.” Furthermore, Jeremy’s parents, despite their claim of “dramatic” injuries to Jeremy on this date, had no photos or medical reports to substantiate any injuries. Refute this allegation by Katelyn and, to use Attorney #1’s analogy, the house of cards should tumble.
- The bump on Jeremy’s forehead. This was caused by his fall into the door edge on the way outside. It was documented in my logbook, and was reported to his dad right away. It was a typical toddler fall—falls happen to all children in spite of the best care. The parents would have thought nothing of it if not for Katelyn’s claim. Medical advice was only sought after Katelyn’s allegations, and the diagnosis was “bruising,” not child abuse.
- Strange marks or crud behind Jeremy’s ear. Possible impetigo or skin infection? How could I have caused that? Again, there was no medical finding of abuse. Furthermore, the prosecution’s theory of me banging heads into the wall resulted in this behind-the ear-injury? I didn’t see how that was possible.
- Bruises to Joshua’s face. Joshua had an extensive medical history, he kept attending my day care for two and a half years after these mysterious bruises, the prosecution’s analyst made a conclusion based only on photos, and he had no other injuries in all the time at my day care. Add all that to this newly discovered report from his doctor, and there could be nothing but reasonable doubt for this charge.
While waiting for jury selection to begin, Attorney #2 handed the prosecutor the medical report from Joshua’s doctor. She stared at it like there were tentacles growing from it; obviously, she had never seen it before. She asked how we intended to introduce it, saying it was hearsay.
Hearsay? It was a medical report prepared during the normal course of business, for an “injury” now suspected as child abuse. How could it not be used? Attorney #2 said he would introduce it during Carol’s testimony. I was anxious to hear how Carol would explain the inconsistencies between this report and her claim that the bruises on Joshua weren’t present on May 16, 2006 until he left my care.
Jury selection was unremarkable. I sure hoped those chosen would pay attention and keep an open mind. These jurors held the rest of my life in their hands.
When the prosecutor began her opening arguments, she said that I had run a day care for a long time, but I would only take care of children up to the age of four. (Again, all forthcoming quotes from the trial are taken directly from court transcripts.)
“She did not go beyond age four,” the prosecutor told the jurors. “At around four that’s when children start to develop and articulate more, their vocabulary increases, they can report what happens to them. They can tell what occurred during the day.”
Well, I could see where this was going! Her theory was that I only kept kids until age four so I could beat them and none of them would be able to tell anyone! I was dumbstruck.
How exactly did this theory make room for my willingness to care for Katelyn during those two fateful days? If I were truly beating kids on a daily basis, why on earth would I have let a very verbal six-year-old attend?
That aside, the prosecutor’s knowledge of child development was sorely lacking. Had she never heard a two-year-old talk? Plus, if she was saying that kids under age four can’t verbalize well, how was that giving credence to the child witnesses she intended to use in this trial–everyone but Katelyn was under four when initially interviewed. In my mind, she couldn’t have it both ways.
Furthermore, I certainly had had kids over age four in my care. I was licensed to accept children up to the age of ten and, over the years, I’d accepted school age children for limited care after school. I also often took drop-in care requests on school holidays or summertime for older kids, similar to what I had done for Katelyn. In fact, Jeremy’s older brother had come a couple days during the summer of 2008. I simply preferred working with kids under four due to the set up and equipment I had; older kids would easily become bored with my preschool age materials.
The prosecutor continued, describing how Katelyn came to my day care, supposedly observed harm being done to Jeremy, told her mom, and prompted the investigation where abuse was determined to be occurring at the hands of yours truly.
It was so hard to sit there and listen to these falsities and assumptions. I was glad when she finished; I sure hoped Attorney #2 had prepared an opening that would show the real me.
He started by talking about my background and my passion for children. He talked about different play themes and equipment that I had in my day care. He mentioned how I took tons of photos to document the daily goings on. I thought he did a good job with this part, and I was looking forward to hearing how he would introduce the problem with Katelyn—how, in his words, her accusations were the spark that started a wildfire.
But all of sudden he was done with his opening. That was terrible, I thought, that he didn’t even mention how Katelyn’s statements would be discredited–the jury needed to have that front and center in their minds as they heard testimony. I was starting to get very nervous about Attorney #2’s competency.
Katelyn Takes the Stand
As I understood it, both Katelyn and Joshua had been recorded at Safe Harbor (a) in an effort to reduce the number of times they’d have to be questioned by law enforcement, child protection workers, medical professionals, counselors and attorneys, (b) in an effort to record their memories accurately and without bias, (c) in an effort to avoid re-traumatizing them by having to re-live the experiences repeatedly and (d) with the intent of using the recorded statements in court instead of putting them on the stand (another potentially traumatizing experience).
Yet the prosecutor called them both to the stand–and in Katelyn’s case she also played her Safe Harbor recording. As the testimony unfolded there were clear inconsistencies between the two versions. I felt certain this would help me.
When Katelyn’s took the stand, the state’s “star witness” didn’t really look at me, other than when the prosecutor specifically asked her to point me out in the courtroom (the prosecutor did that with all the kids she put on the stand). Katelyn seemed rather bored, certainly not scared or confused. I suppose a part of me felt resentment towards her in that moment—after all, she was the catalyst for this trial. But I also realized she was just a six-year-old little girl.
First, however, the Safe Harbor video was played, with Katelyn clearly stating that she only saw Jeremy get hurt once (again, the forthcoming exchanges come directly from a Safe Harbor transcript of the recording):
Interviewer: Did you ever see Jeremy get hurt any other time besides when he was getting his diaper changed?
Yet now, in the courtroom and on the stand, the prosecutor asked her if she saw Jeremy get hurt another time.
Katelyn: Umm, on the wall where she was banging his head on the wall, but not in the diaper station in the bathroom.
Prosecutor: What wall was that where you saw her bang Jeremy’s head.
Katelyn: I can’t remember.
What was this? Now she was changing her story, with a vague reference to seeing him hurt somewhere else. How could this second claim at trial, one and a half years after the event, be solid? Surely my attorney would object, or point this out on cross-examination.
This second incident sounded suspiciously, if not exactly, like Katelyn’s claim in the Safe Harbor recording of Sarah getting hurt. The judge had ruled that allegation inadmissible months earlier during a motion hearing–yet he allowed the entire recording of Katelyn’s Safe Harbor interview to be played in court, Sarah allegation included, in front of the jurors.
I started wondering: during her courtroom testimony had Katelyn somehow morphed Sarah into Jeremy? Was her young memory playing tricks on her (again)? Or was there something else at work?
It dawned on me that perhaps the prosecutor knew we could easily contest the alleged bathroom-changing incident, so she had to make sure there was another incident reported by Katelyn. This was outrageous. I could feel my blood begin to boil.
Attorney 2 asked Katelyn a few questions on cross-examination about what she supposedly saw me doing to Jeremy at the diaper-changing station.
Attorney 2: You told us about seeing Lynn bumping Jeremy’s head against the wall, right?
Attorney 2: You said you were standing on the climber?
Attorney 2: (Showing her a photo) Can you point with your finger where you were standing on the climber?
Katelyn: Umm, I think I was standing on the stairs.
Attorney 2: So the stairs going up into it?
Attorney 2: Could you see his head bump against the wall?
Attorney 2: But you heard something thinking that it was?
Attorney 2: All right. Could you see her hands on the hair on his head?
Attorney 2: How far from his head was the wall?
Katelyn: I don’t remember.
Attorney 2: Do you know how many times his head bumped the wall?
Attorney 2: You heard once?
So, he got her to admit that she was on the steps of the climber, a vantage point from which it was even more impossible to see the diaper changing station. And he even got her to admit that she couldn’t see Jeremy’s head being banged into the wall, only that she heard banging.
But he completely ignored her second story about me supposedly abusing Jeremy a second time in another unknown place. He didn’t even make an attempt to challenge Katelyn about it.
Attorney #2 treated the kid with the proverbial kid gloves and, while I realize attorneys fear that aggressively confronting children on the stand will backfire with jurors, I really felt that he needed to address the inconsistencies between the taped and live versions of her stories. When there’s an impossibility or inconsistency with what a child says, he or she should be called on it.
The Trouble with Carol
By the time Carol took the stand, the prosecutor had obviously shown her Joshua’s doctor’s report because, when asked if the bruises were present on him on May 16, 2006 when she dropped him off at my day care, this time she claimed, “I don’t know.”
That answer was vastly different from her preliminary hearing testimony when she adamantly answered the same question, “No.” She then testified that she didn’t recall taking Joshua to the doctor, and that she didn’t recall telling the doctor that the bruises had been present for three to four days.
On cross-examination, much to my dismay Attorney #2 didn’t bother bringing up the discrepancy in her testimony between the prelim and trial. Was he oblivious to the change? Was he simply ill prepared?
Attorney #2 then attempted to get the doctor’s report admitted into evidence, but the judge ruled that it was hearsay unless we had someone from the doctor’s staff attest to its authenticity.
Because we’d only received this report a week prior, apparently this timing prevented us from adequately using it to defend my case. I was furious that it wasn’t going to be allowed. I felt certain that if it had contained information against me, the prosecution surely would have been able to use it.
When Carol was then asked why she waited so long to report Katelyn’s allegations, she said, “What made me wait was basically getting my family adjusted to Joshua’s new day care, just time.”
I was upset that Attorney #2 didn’t respond by confronting her about her moral obligation to the other families if she truly suspected child abuse.
Out of the Mouths of Babes…and Moms and Dads
All but one of my day care kids was called to the stand. Despite gentle but persistent prodding by the prosecutor, most said they didn’t remember what happened at my day care, or even telling their parents about it. For example, Jeremy (now four-years-old) didn’t respond to any attempts by the prosecutor to say he was hurt at day care.
I had mixed emotions seeing these children again, under these circumstances. I certainly didn’t want them to have to endure this ordeal but I was so glad to see their beautiful faces again. I smiled at them when the prosecutor asked them to look for me in the courtroom. None of them seemed scared or frightened to be there.
When some of the parents testified, they were allowed to speak for their children, insisting their kids had told them that Jeremy cried, or Jeremy got his hair pulled or had his cheeks squeezed. How was that not hearsay? And how credible were these stories? How exactly were these parents questioning their children?
The mother of one child attempted to record her son making allegations, but this video (played in court) showed the child being directed to “look at mama” for cues, being corrected when he didn’t make incriminating statements, and almost every question from the parent was leading. For example, the parent said to the child: “She puts his hands on her face, can you show me what he does? No, no, not that. Does she do something to his cheeks?”
When it came time for Joshua to take the stand, he looked directly at me, beaming. And he waved. I waved back. It almost brought tears to my eyes. But then, minutes later, he broke my heart. Now almost five-years-old, Joshua testified to seeing me bang Jeremy’s head “every day.”
As agonizing as it was to hear the false testimony of this little boy, I knew that it must have come about simply from hearing his sister talk about it. Carol indicated (in both an interview she gave police and on the stand) that Katelyn made her initial accusation when she was driving Katelyn and Joshua to my house. Younger kids mimic older kids, especially siblings. I couldn’t be angry with him. There was no way this child had any idea what he was saying, much less the implications of it.
Two Days of Torture
The trial lasted for two days. The state’s child abuse expert again came to say the bruises to Joshua were “adult inflicted fingertip contusions” and “gravely concerning for abuse.” My day care licensor also testified. The prosecutor asked her if she had verified for herself if the diaper changing station in the day care bathroom could be seen from the climber in the other room (where Katelyn claims she saw the alleged abuse) and she said she did.
That was an outright lie. When she was at my house, she declined my invitation to go down to the day care area to see how Katelyn’s claim was a physical impossibility—saying it was unnecessary. In court, she also said my logbook wasn’t quite up to par–yet she had never given me that feedback personally or ever told me I was in violation.
During the prosecutor’s closing argument, she took a small baby doll and pounded it on the jury bar, insinuating that that was how I was harming the children. “Abuse, abuse, abuse,” she chanted. She said I was frustrated with Jeremy due to his crying, occasional spitting up of his meals and behavioral issues, and therefore lashed out at him. She referred to the “poor children” who were “going through hell.”
Attorney #2 again talked about my nice day care setting, good toys, and meaningful projects during his closing statement. That shouldn’t have been the focus.
He did review with the jury how Katelyn couldn’t possibly see into the bathroom; he reminded them that she herself admitted to being on the stairs to the climber when she claimed to have seen the abuse. He told the jurors to closely analyze the photos of the day care that were being sent back with them to the deliberation room.
He gave what I thought was a half-hearted attempt to discredit Carol and her inconsistent stories about the facial bruises to Joshua. He did a better job pointing out that the abuse Jeremy was alleged to have suffered was never substantiated by any medical professional.
He again presented his “spark and wildfire” analogy and ended his closing statement by telling jurors they should conclude by the evidence that there was reasonable doubt any abuse had occurred at all.
His closing was weak.
Because the prosecution had the burden of proof, the prosecutor had a chance for rebuttal. She basically conceded that Katelyn might not have been able to see in the bathroom, but then she pointed out to the jurors that my defense hadn’t offered up any explanation for the second supposed Katelyn report of me abusing Jeremy–the one that sounded strangely similar to the (also false) story Katelyn originally told in the Safe Harbor video, with Sarah as the alleged victim.
And she kept saying that I had admitted I had been “rough” with Jeremy, and that I said that to many people. This was an intentional distortion of the truth.
When I was on the stand, during the prosecutor’s cross exam, she asked if I admitted being rough with Jeremy. This line of questioning was based on statements I made when the police were interviewing me. Bombarded by accusations in my house, I tried to figure out what “all the kids” were possibly seeing. The only thing I could think of at the time was that maybe, in pulling Jeremy away from the table when he would spit up, the kids perceived me as being rough in that respect. (Yes, I regrettably termed it as “rough”–simply for lack of a better word. But by no means did I mean “rough” to translate into “abusive.”)
The prosecutor’s words were the last that the jury heard before deliberating. I had a terrible feeling. It became apparent to me that a trial is not about finding the truth or delivering justice, but rather, who can put on the best show. The prosecutor was a master storyteller; my attorney, not so much.
After eight hours of deliberation, which to me felt like an eternity, the jury came back with its verdict. My hopes soared when they declared me not guilty of the first charge–the one based on Katelyn’s impossible X-ray vision. The jurors apparently realized her claim of seeing me abuse Jeremy in the bathroom was false.
But those same hopes were instantly dashed when guilty verdicts were revealed for the other three charges. I couldn’t believe it. How did this “house of cards” remain standing once the base was pulled?
As far as I know, none of the jurors have ever spoken publicly about their decision. I’ve pondered their reasoning again and again. I basically think they thought my defense was weak, that they were expecting more evidence or more information that clearly showed I did not, and could not, have been a child abuser. Coupled with the prosecutor’s vicious closing argument, I think I was doomed.
As the word “guilty” was repeated, I broke down, sobbing. And it was even more heartbreaking to see tears from my family and friends, especially my sons. The judge declared that there would be a sentencing hearing in two months– potentially my last two months of freedom. Each charge I was convicted of carried a potential three-year prison term. Nine years in prison? I was beside myself with grief, fear, dread, anger, you name it.
I was so upset that I don’t remember anything Attorney #2 might have said to me after the trial. Later, he admitted that he should have asked for more time for preparation, and that he would never take a case from another attorney again. That was of little comfort to me.
I had to meet with a probation officer who would ultimately recommend a sentence to the judge. This lady initially called me to say that she was a neutral party and her job was to evaluate the case from the point of view of both the “victims” and myself. However, my first meeting with her was a disaster. She was very rude, said I was guilty, and that I should admit to it. So much for considering my side. I left her office in tears.
I later learned that she had also spoken with the detective who investigated my case, the one who had recorded me in my home all those months ago. The detective told her, in part, “This case was a slam dunk. She is not innocent. If I ever have any doubts I don’t send it to the DA. It is my job to be a fact finder and I believe we found the facts in this case.”
At the sentencing hearing, 15 people testified on my behalf. They included friends, family members, other childcare providers, and former day care parents. They all came with the same message, pleading for a lenient sentence. While it was wonderful to hear all the support, their words fell on hollow ears.
The judge seemed to have already made up his mind, prior to this hearing. He agreed with the probation officer’s evaluation; in it, she wrote, “ I do not believe this is a prison case. Ms. Moller has no criminal background until now and is not a threat to the public. I believe community supervision along with a short term of jail is sufficient in this case. I had no intention of requesting jail time along with probation, but due to Moller’s lack of responsibility and lack of remorse, I feel it is justified and warranted.”
In addition, some of the parents of my day care kids had complained to the judge and probation officer about having to go to trial–because I wouldn’t take the plea deal. Wasn’t that my constitutional right? Especially because I was innocent, whether they wanted to believe that or not?
The judge ordered me to three years of probation. That was a relief, until I heard him say that a six-month jail term would be imposed as a condition of probation–as a condition of my remorseless behavior and refusal to admit to the title of child abuser.
To reiterate, I felt no remorse because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I took no responsibility because I didn’t commit a crime.
I was appealing my conviction, so the probation and jail time were postponed pending the outcome of the appeal. Once again, I was allowed to go home.
I knew post-conviction relief was a long shot, but I had to try all avenues to clear my name. On appeal, I argued ineffective assistance of counsel, among other things. Attorney #2 was a nice enough person, and I’m sure a good attorney under other circumstances, but he just wasn’t up to speed on my case. In hindsight, I should have insisted on postponing the trial once I found out I needed a new attorney. But at that point, I felt I’d been living with the allegations longer than I could bear, and wanted the trial over.
If I thought that the trial court proceedings had moved slowly, they were speedy compared to the appeals process; they dragged on for several more years. During this time, I tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Wrongfully convicted or not, in the eyes of the law I was a felon. It would be hard for me to find a job, especially one with the type of income I was used to. My future seemed dim, and certainly not what I’d been looking forward to, or ever envisioned.
In my first appeal attempt at the circuit court level, I argued that the entire recording of Safe Harbor’s interview with Katelyn was wrongly played in court before the jurors. They should have only heard the part where she claimed to have seen Jeremy being abused, but instead they also heard her tale about Sarah being victimized as well. At the time, the judge ruled that the additional allegations, like the Sarah claim, were inadmissible.
In response to this argument, the court agreed, responding, “Katelyn’s allegation was nothing more than a little girl’s confusing assumption that a noise she heard that came from a room she could not see into was evidence of physical abuse.” That was encouraging, but my appeal was denied nonetheless.
By October 2014, four and a half years after my trial, all of my appeal attempts were exhausted; I lost them all. I had clung to hope that this travesty of justice would be exposed, but that never happened. I reported to the Dane County Jail in Madison to start my six-month sentence.
The jail experience was demeaning and humiliating. The food was atrocious. Yet many of the other inmates, mostly there for drug or DWI offenses, were actually very nice. They were curious about why I was there; they expressed disbelief when I told them. I guess I didn’t fit the typical inmate profile.
Luckily, after being in the jail for just a few days, I was told by a deputy that I was eligible for the electronic monitoring program, where I would be able to go home to serve my sentence. A small miracle.
I was fitted with an ankle bracelet and basically put on house arrest. I could attend medical appointments if needed, get a monthly haircut, and go grocery shopping once a week. It was still restricting however, due to the ever-present appendage on my ankle. I had to submit to random alcohol breath tests via a home machine and even though I was never much of a drinker, funny how once you’re denied something you want it more than ever! It was a long six months, but a much better alternative to sitting in jail.
I celebrated the removal of the bracelet at the end of the period with a gathering for friends and family at a local bar and, yes, beer never tasted so good. I vowed to never take my freedom for granted.
As of this writing, I still have half of my probation time to finish. Every few months I meet with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, basically just to check in. The agent assigned to my case knows that I’m not a problem or threat to the community and he’s working to get me an early release. The worst part of being on probation is the loss of civil rights, meaning I can’t vote until discharged from supervision.
At the same time, I know I’m fortunate compared to others who’ve been wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated. My heart aches for those who lost, and continue to lose, years of their lives behind bars due to wrongful convictions.
The Lingering Agony of a Wrongful Conviction
To this day, I continue to ask myself why this happened. “They” say that “things happen for a reason.” I just have no idea what the reason for this sequence of horrific events could possibly be.
The strain of a false accusation and subsequent conviction has had devastating effects on my whole family. My sons’ faith in police and the criminal justice system has been shattered. While we rallied and remained strong as a family, I know that hearing lies and terrible stories about their mom took a toll on their psychological health. My husband took this whole debacle as an attack upon his family, and, in his determination to expose the truth of my innocence, had his own brushes with the law.
I wondered how I could use my experience to benefit others and concluded that, at age 49, I needed to go back to school to obtain a paralegal certificate. I learned a great deal from my involuntary immersion into the legal system, and thought I could somehow use that to help out others struggling with the same circumstances. Fortunately, my conviction didn’t deter me from finding work in the legal profession. I’m one of the lucky ones. Many convicts’ resumes are tossed if they don’t pass a background check—if they check that box on the application that says “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
My supervisors and human resource personnel at my current job are aware of my issue; they’ve been sympathetic and nonjudgmental. I’ve been there four years now, and have received good reviews and raises.
Still, the financial ramifications of the past six years linger. Our savings and retirement accounts are completely wiped out. Attorney fees, appeal fees, court costs, probation and jail costs (yes, I had to pay $21 a day for the privilege of wearing the ankle bracelet), and loss of income have reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m grateful to be employed now, but I’m paid about 60 percent less than what I was making with the day care business. Through the skin of our teeth we’ve managed to hold onto our home, but every month I fight for the last few dollars to meet the mortgage. There are even weeks when I have to forego grocery shopping, hoping that the staples in our pantry will last until the next payday.
My physical and mental health took a beating. There were times when I hoped I just didn’t wake up in the morning. Because of the stigma of being accused and subsequently convicted of child abuse, I felt unworthy of any happiness. I know this was self-imposed, but it was hard to overcome. I had put my heart and soul into my childcare career, and my relationships with the children and their families, and I floundered when I lost that.
Perhaps worst of all, I know that the police and prosecutors still think I’m a child abuser. That’s a deep wound that will probably never heal. As for the children formerly in my care (and their parents), according to the terms of my probation I can’t ever have contact with them. Even if I were to accidentally run into them somewhere in the community, I’m not allowed to say anything to them. Of course, I don’t know what I’d say anyway; I suspect they’re so convinced of my guilt that they wouldn’t be open to hearing anything from me.
The pain of going into the former day care space in our home has finally receded; for the longest time the eerie quietness of that room depressed me. My sons have since used it as a rec room; they enjoyed that but certainly not at the expense of losing the day care and my livelihood. We’ve also had friends in need of temporary housing stay there; they in turn have helped out with household expenses.
I sold all my day care toys and equipment. I knew I would never need those materials again. Even if, by some miracle, one day I were exonerated of the charges, I would never take the risk of working in the childcare field again.
Moving On, or Trying to…
Life threw me a curve ball. Never in a million years did I anticipate being not only accused but convicted of child abuse. Plans I had for the future were altered dramatically. I can lament what could have been, or I can move on. I choose to move on.
I’ve started giving presentations at early childhood conferences about what happened to me, and how I’m not alone. The importance of getting the word out to fellow child care providers has pushed me to overcome my shyness and reluctance to speak publicly. I feel that if I can keep just one person from going through what I endured, my ordeal may have some benefit. I’ve received great feedback and many thanks for bringing this matter to others’ attention.
Bottom line: all childcare providers, teachers, and others who work with kids run an inherent risk; society’s efforts to protect the vulnerable population of children may sometimes go overboard at the expense of those individuals dedicated to working with them. Allegations of child abuse need to be applied with common sense and judgment, not hysteria. The latter can result in even the most law-abiding caregivers experiencing damage to their reputations under an unfair, unspoken, but very real theory of “guilty before proven innocent.”
I don’t blame Katelyn. For whatever reason, this child told a story of seeing me bang a child’s head against the wall. She was the catalyst for suspicion that went wildly out of control–her word was taken by adults as the gospel truth.
I, like most people, naively believed in the criminal justice system. Please believe me: what happened to me could easily happen to you, to anyone.
We’re all just one Katelyn away from the horror of a wrongful conviction.
Lynn Moller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. reached out to the Madison Police Department and Dane County District Attorney’s office for comment about the Lynn Moller case. Police provided us with this statement: “This case was litigated at length in the courts. The investigation and court proceedings are a matter of public record. The defendant was convicted at the conclusion of a jury trial.” A spokesperson with the DA’s office asked us to submit specific questions. We did so, but they were never answered and our follow-up phone calls and emails were not returned.
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