Defense attorney Danny Davis became famous for his work in the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, Calif., which drew national publicity in the 1980s for its allegations of satanic rituals, secret rooms and mass molestations of children.
Davis is now representing evangelist Tony Alamo, who also faces lurid and widely publicized allegations of abuse. But Davis said he sees few similarities between Alamo’s case and the one against McMartin Preschool worker Raymond Buckey, which ended with prosecutors dropping charges in 1990 and spawned an HBO movie.
“McMartin was a hysteria among my age group, the Boomers, that would much rather prefer that a bogeyman did something to their child than nothing at all,” Davis, 63, of Beverly Hills said in a phone interview last week. “I don’t see that threshold theme running in this case.”
Alamo, 74, is set for trial May 18 on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines for sex over the past 15 years. U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes on Tuesday granted a request by Alamo to have Davis take over as the defense attorney, replacing Little Rock attorney John Wesley Hall Jr.
As he prepares Alamo’s defense, Davis said he is focusing on Alamo’s glaucoma and other physical ailments and on the places – such as a ministry bus and a shower – where Alamo is accused of abusing girls.
“It appears [the allegations] may be, quote, physically impossible, end quote,” Davis said. “It would require that everyone in the ministry condones this type of behavior, because the physicalities would have required many other people to be present.”
Debbie Groom, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, declined to comment on the charges or evidence against Alamo.
In the McMartin case, Buckey and his mother, Peggy Mc-Martin Buckey, were accused of molesting 11 children at the family’s preschool southwest of Los Angeles. Davis and Peggy Buckey’s attorney, Dean Gitz, contended that social workers prodded the children to make up fantastic stories, including tales of animal sacrifice and hidden passageways that did not exist.
After a trial that lasted more than two years, a jury in 1990 acquitted the Buckeys of 52 counts and deadlocked on 13 others. A second trial, on eight counts involving three alleged victims, ended with the jury deadlocked on all the counts. Prosecutors decided not to take the case to trial again.
In the 1995 movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial, actor James Woods portrayed Davis as a sleazy lawyer who finds redemption. In the interview, Davis called it a “silly movie” that “tailored the truth to the sort of pieces that Jimmy Woods does.”
While the Alamo case has also generated publicity, Davis said he hasn’t seen the “pernicious and overwhelming levels” created by the McMartin case.
“All cases have some pretrial publicity,” Davis said, but “most jurors get over that.”
“When you get in a courtroom, you’re numbed by the rigid requirements of admissible evidence, and it becomes a very different issue.”
Alamo is apparently a fan of Davis’ work.
His Web site, www.alamoministries.com, has a link to a 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in which Kyle Zirpolo, one of the accusers, admits that, when he was 8, he made up stories about abuse at the preschool because he wanted to please his parents and help protect other children. The article was also reprinted in a ministry pamphlet in February.
More recently, Davis was one of several attorneys who came under scrutiny when private investigator Anthony Pellicano was indicted on charges of illegal wiretapping, racketeering and wire fraud. Davis had used Pellicano as an investigator for several cases but was not charged with any crimes. Pellicano was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison.
Davis represented Alamo once before, when the evangelist was accused of ordering the severe paddling of an 11-year-old boy at the ministry’s compound in Saugus, Calif. The prosecution of that case was delayed for years, first while Alamo was on the lam, then while he stood trial on charges of failing to pay federal income taxes. Prosecutors dropped the child abuse charge in 1995, citing the length of time since the beating and Alamo’s conviction on the tax evasion charges. Alamo served four years in prison on the tax charges and was released in 1998.
Asked why Alamo decided to switch attorneys in the pending case, Davis indicated that Alamo was worried Hall might be too busy to prepare for trial. Hall said that wouldn’t have been a problem, saying he had made several trips to Texarkana, had met with Alamo eight to 10 times and had made at least 100 phone calls in his investigation.
“We were half prepared by this point already,” Hall said.
Davis declined to say how much he is being paid, but he added that he has agreed to waive the expense of traveling back and forth from California. He said he has already met with Alamo and several ministry members and has inspected locations where the sexual abuse is alleged to have taken place. He is focusing on how Alamo, who claims to be legally blind, could have taken girls across state lines, an element of the allegations that allowed prosecutors to charge the evangelist in federal court.
“This is less about sex than it is about transporting,” Davis said. “That’s kind of the awkward nature of this indictment.”
Davis said he hoped to be prepared in time for the trial, but he added that he would be “surprised” if he was and may seek to have it postponed.
“I’ve never surprised myself without disappointing myself,” Davis said. “That’s the risk.”