Witch Hunt At a Glance:
Sean Penn narrates this documentary about a local justice system that abused its own power. Filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy explore the story of California resident John Stoll, who was arrested and subsequently charged with multiple cases of child molestation, including that of his own son. In the 1980s, Stoll’s was only one of an epidemic of false convictions in the area. Through interviews with those unjustly arrested, Nachman examines the morally hysteric climate that contributed to the situation.
Witch Hunt in Detail:
On the night John Stoll was roused from his bed and carted off to jail, his attitude bordered on the cavalier.
“Aren’t you worried?” His lawyer wondered.
“Hell no, I ain’t worried,” John answered. “I didn’t do this. You can’t convict me of something I didn’t do.”
It was more than two decades before John Stoll was free again.
Executive Producer Sean Penn proudly presents “Witch Hunt,” a gripping
indictment of the United States justice system told through the lens of one small town. It’s John Stoll’s story, but it’s also the story of dozens of other men and women who found themselves ensnared in a spiral of fear, ignorance and hysteria. These people are Americans, working class moms and dads, who were rounded up with little or no evidence, charged and convicted of almost unimaginable crimes. All sexual. All crimes against children. Years, sometimes decades later, they would find freedom again, but their lives and the lives of their children would be changed forever.
This film shows viewers what the real crime in this case is, not molestation, but the crime of coercion. Viewers hear from the child witnesses who were forced to lie on the witness stand as they describe scary sessions with sheriff’s deputies in which they were told — not asked — about sexual experiences that happened to them. Their coerced testimony led to dozens of convictions. Many times their own parents were the ones they put behind bars. Soon after the trials, the children started to crack. They told adults of the lies they’d been forced to tell on the stand and hoped it would make a difference. It didn’t and the convicted continued to sit in prison. As the allegations grew more outlandish, California’s Attorney General wrote a scathing report on the court misconduct, but instead of being buried by criticism, Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels thrived, doing what he did best– putting people away. He boasted one of the highest conviction rates in the country. This strategy served him well. Jagels is still in office today.
Through new interviews, archival footage, and unflinching narration by Mr.Penn, the filmmakers construct an intimate film that illustrates a universal point; when power is allowed to exist without oversight from the press, the community or law enforcement, the rights of everyday citizens can be lost for decades.
National film critic Marshall Fine says, “This is a chilling story about American law-enforcement run amok and untethered. It’s particularly timely in the wake of revelations about the way the Bush administration has trampled American civil rights. A movie that can’t help but move you – to tears and to action.”