EDITOR’S NOTE: Especially in the St. Louis metropolitan area, the state of Missouri’s municipal court system has been in the news a lot lately — see here and here — for all the wrong reasons. The state’s family court system, however, has not received nearly as much attention; therefore, I decided to fill the void.
Largely due to the almost-nonexistent news coverage about it, family court was a place foreign to me until a few years ago when, at the request of a friend, I attended a child-custody hearing involving a thirty-something couple who had recently battled their way through a messy divorce.
In this case, the husband seemed to hold all of the cards: he owned a thriving business; he coached youth sports; and he was perceived by many as a pillar in the community. His stay-at-home-mom wife, on the other hand, handled the equally important but often-overlooked responsibilities associated with caring for the couple’s many stair-step children, bi-products of a decade of wedlock. Financially speaking, however, she contributed nothing tangible to the family’s bottom line.
During the morning portion of the hearing, I sat quietly in the back row of a Saint Louis-area courtroom, taking notes and not speaking with anyone in the courtroom. Seated a few rows in front of me were two women, one of whom I determined to be the wife and the other her friend. Across the center aisle that separated the two seating sections and functioned as a kind of subliminal barrier between the litigants, the husband sat amidst a small group of people that included members of his side of the family and friends.
After what turned out to be an uneventful ninety-minute session, a midday break afforded each person inside the courtroom to take a break and grab something to eat, breathe some fresh air and/or take a restroom break. Some may have taken advantage of several items on the unofficial menu of opportunities.
Upon entering the courtroom after the break, I noticed the wife’s female friend had been replaced by another for the afternoon session and that the two had taken my back-row spot on the left side of the gallery seating. Because I preferred to sit with my back near a wall, I relocated to a back-row seat on the other side of the room, two rows behind the husband and his group.
Several minutes passed and, after apparently growing tired of waiting for the judge and the attorneys to return to the courtroom, the wife and her second friend decided to step into the hallway outside the courtroom. Soon after their departure, time and curiosity seemed to get the best of the husband, and he turned to face me.
“You’re not a private investigator, are you?” he asked, seemingly unconcerned about how odd the question seemed in light of allegations made against him by the mother of his children.
“None of your business,” I replied, prompting a chorus of hoots and howls—as well as some well-placed glares—from members of the husband’s group.
A few more minutes passed, and the husband’s snappy-dressed lead attorney—a man of average height and above-average girth—exited the judge’s chambers and walked back into the courtroom. The husband approached the attorney and engaged him in muffled conversation during which both cast suspicious glances in my direction. Those glances were followed a few seconds later by a bluster of high drama.
The animated attorney came barreling down the center of the courtroom, walking directly toward me and speaking loud enough so that everyone in the room—and, perhaps, everyone in the courthouse—could hear.
“Are you harassing my client?!” he bellowed.
Before I could respond to his obvious intimidation tactic, the attorney shouted again, this time toward the bailiff seated behind his desk near the front of the courtroom and only a few feet from the judge’s now-empty bench.
“Bailiff, this man’s harassing my client and following him around! Can we have him removed?!”
Before waiting for the bailiff to respond, I spoke loudly in an attempt to defuse the situation and rebut the attorney’s false and malicious claims.
I told the bailiff the attorney’s allegations were absurd, that I had not made any attempt to harass his client and that I had had good reason to change seats—which I explained to him—during the break.
Perhaps smelling a rat in the attorney’s grandstanding, the bailiff did not have me escorted out of the courtroom. Instead, he simply asked me to move to the other side of the aisle and to refrain from interacting with anyone in the court room.
While the husband’s attorney had succeeded in creating a scene, he had also succeeded in creating a great deal of doubt in the minds of everyone inside the courtroom who was not an officer of the court or a supporter of his client—me.
Did his well-to-do, college-educated business owner client, who coached youth sports teams and donated money to charities for abused children, deserve any key role in the lives of his children? After observing the attorney’s courtroom antics, I was leaning against his client. Then I interviewed his client’s wife.
In graphic detail, she alleged, the man she had married ten years earlier had sexually molested several of their children during the previous decade. She also told me how he had once confided in her the details of how he, as a child growing up in a neighboring state, had suffered sexual molestation at the hands of his adoptive parents.
After catching him in the act of sexually molesting one of their children, she waited until he had gone to work the next day and then fled. She took her children to a shelter for abused women in a nearby community. When he learned what she had done, he immediately transferred the bulk of the money in their joint bank accounts to one over which he had sole control. Then he hired the high-priced attorney whose courtroom antics I described earlier.
In an effort to prove to others that she was telling the truth about her husband, the woman subjected herself to an exam conducted by a state-certified examiner using the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer, the same non-polygraph credibility assessment technology highlighted in my second nonfiction book, The Clapper Memo (May 2013), and featured prominently in my first crime-fiction thriller, The National Bet (November 2014).
Based on the results of her CVSA exam, the examiner determined she was not being deceptive when she answered key questions about the allegations she had made against the man who is now her ex-husband.
When the woman tried to show the results of the exam to the family court judge overseeing the custody case, the judge dismissed them out of hand and, in doing so, ignored the fact the man who had administered the exam — while acting in his capacity as a private business owner — was a full-time employee of the State of Missouri whose job description included conducting CVSA exams on a regular basis as part of state-sanctioned criminal investigations.
Perhaps, the judge was unaware CVSA technology had been used successfully by Defense Intelligence Agency officials to interrogate members of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle (a.k.a., “The Deck of Cards”) as well as detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And maybe he was unaware CVSA technology is used by several states to periodically monitor convicted sex offenders. Sure, it’s possible he’s ignorant about the existence of the technology; however, based upon what I’ve learned about the family court system in Missouri since the courtroom episode described above, I think that’s an extremely remote possibility.
Adding insult to injury, the judge went on to give the father equal custody of the couple’s children in what is known as five-two-five custody arrangement. That means the alleged the alleged child molester was given unfettered access to them two days every week and four days every other week. As far as I know, he’ll continue to have such access until caught by indisputable video evidence or eyewitness testimony and convicted by a court — and a judge — willing to act on the evidence.
The words above will appear as the preface in my upcoming third nonfiction book about another Family Court case I’ve followed for more than five years. It’s a story to which I’ve applied the same journalistic skills that prompted David P. Schippers to describe my second nonfiction book, The Clapper Memo, as representing “perhaps the most thorough investigative reporting I have encountered in years.” For those not familiar with Schippers, this might help: he served as the U.S. House of Representatives’ chief investigative counsel during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
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