Bruce McLaughlin used to travel around the country teaching corporations how to negotiate their contracts more effectively. Now the Leesburg, Va., lawyer sits in Virginia's Mecklenburg Correctional Center, where he is fighting his 1999 conviction for molesting his children.
After nearly three years in jail, failed appeals, and an attempted escape, McLaughlin -- who has always maintained his innocence -- has new hope that his conviction will be overturned. The state Department of Social Services (DSS), which once determined that McLaughlin had sexually abused two of his four children, recently reversed its finding and suggested that McLaughlin's estranged wife manufactured her testimony, while manipulating the testimony of her children, to punish her adulterous husband.
But the Loudoun County, Va., Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Anderson is sure that the jury put the Leesburg lawyer where he deserves to be. And the people who best know what happened are gone. In the summer of 1999, McLaughlin's wife, Robyn, fled to New Zealand, her homeland, with all four of their children, in violation of an Aug. 16, 1999, court order by Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge James Chamblin.
McLaughlin's family does not know exactly where she is, and she has fired her Virginia attorney, Mark Sandground Sr. of Vienna's Sandground, Barondess, West & New.
Sitting in the small dingy visitor's center at the Loudoun County jail last month –- where he spent more than two years before his recent transfer to Mecklenburg -- the 48-year-old McLaughlin looked thin and tired in his orange jumpsuit. His eyes were red and bleary behind wire-rimmed glasses, and his silver hair needed a trim. A few years ago, McLaughlin, who got his license to practice law in Virginia in 1980, lived in a half-million-dollar house. Today he's on the other side of the glass in a prison visiting room, still wearing his wedding ring.
"There are a lot of factors in this equation that led to me in this jail cell," he says, "none of them having to do with me sexually abusing my children."
McLaughlin says he blames himself, in part, for his situation, wondering if he caused his wife to report him to DSS.
The two separated in August 1996. "I was trying very much to reconcile with her and yet I did not come to grips with my own abusive conduct of her," says McLaughlin. "Emotionally, I was not there for her."
But emotional absence was not the only problem. According to the summary of the evidence in the Nov. 21 DSS decision, McLaughlin testified that he grabbed his wife during an argument in 1995 and that on Aug. 8, 1996, he twisted Robyn's wrist, causing "bruising internally to her shoulder."
McLaughlin, who has gone so far as to file an application under the Hague Convention to have his children sent back here, again admits in an affidavit submitted as part of those proceedings to harming Robyn, but downplays the incidents. "The injuries sustained to [Robyn] were minor resulting from heated arguments during which both I and [Robyn] engaged in aggressive physical behavior, which admittedly on my part was inappropriate," he wrote.
Adultery also played a role in the breakdown of his marriage, says McLaughlin. On May 17, 1998, while divorce proceedings were pending, he wrote to his wife, admitting to a brief affair early in their marriage. A member of the charismatic Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, McLaughlin says he felt the need to unburden himself.
"I should have confessed my infidelity to her when it happened," he now says.
Instead, McLaughlin chose to make his confession at a time when his marriage had reached its breaking point.
According to copies of faxes between Robyn and an assistant pastor of the Cornerstone Chapel, she was told by the assistant pastor to disclose the adultery to the children and to ask if they had anything they wanted to confess about their father. She made the incest allegations to the Loudoun branch of DSS on behalf of all four children just five days later, on the Friday before Memorial Day in 1998.
The first interviews by police and Child Protective Services (CPS), which works under the auspices of DSS, with the children -- Lucas, Nicholas, Hannah, and Emma -- took place the following Tuesday. Those interviews were not taped, which is a violation of DSS protocol. At least one of the children used notes prepared with the help of Robyn during the interview, according to the Nov. 21 DSS decision.
The children were later given physical examinations and interviewed again, this time while being taped. In October 1998, DSS decided that the charges were unfounded as to the then seven-year-old twins, Hannah and Emma. But the agency made a disposition of "Founded -- Sexual Abuse (Intercourse/Sodomy) -- Level One" by McLaughlin against Lucas and Nicholas, then 12 and nine, respectively. The criminal trial began a month later.
A SECOND CHANCE
The trial lasted two weeks, and three of the children -- Hannah, Lucas, and Nicholas -- testified by closed-circuit television. Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas Horne dismissed nine of the 23 charges against McLaughlin, but in the end the 12-person jury led by foreman Stephen Luster found him guilty of eight counts, sending him to jail for 13 years.
McLaughlin points to two people -- Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Anderson and his own trial attorney, Harvey Volzer of Washington, D.C.'s Shaughnessy, Volzer & Gagner -- as the main reasons why he lost at trial. "I had a very zealous prosecutor as well as weak defense counsel," he says. "I think the jury got a lot of cheap shots from the prosecution," says McLaughlin.
He further contends that Anderson improperly used character evidence to paint him as a bad guy in the eyes of the jury, and that Volzer failed to call an expert witness to the stand and should have recalled McLaughlin himself as a witness.
For his part, Volzer says he has significant experience in handling sexual abuse matters and explains that the circumstances of McLaughlin's case were simply unusual. "This is certainly not the first sex case I've handled, by any means," he says.
Volzer still believes that McLaughlin is innocent. "We had great experts, outstanding cross-examination. But the jury was just really hung up on the three children" who testified, says Volzer. "It was a very difficult case. It was two weeks, probably the longest case in Loudoun County history," he adds.
Anderson, though, believes McLaughlin alone is to blame for his present condition. "He is a very unique individual. He's very sharp," says Anderson, adding, "I think in mind control, he's an expert in it."
McLaughlin has lost his direct appeals to the Virginia state courts. He says his loss at the Virginia Court of Appeals is what caused him to try to escape from prison on Feb. 8.
According to his current attorney, Alexander Levay of Leesburg's Moyes & Levay, McLaughlin was caught trying to escape on the day he was to make a court appearance in a separate matter. He pleaded guilty to felony escape, and his law license has been suspended pending a disciplinary hearing before the Virginia State Bar.
McLaughlin also tried to pay an inmate to go to New Zealand to bring his children back to the United States, according to Anderson and court documents. The prosecutor says his office decided not to pursue that charge mainly because of the strain it would place on Robyn and the children.
But McLaughlin's loss at the state courts has not ended his case. Two years after the initial DSS report was issued, the agency came to a different conclusion after revisiting the case in an administrative appeal by McLaughlin. The hearing officer concluded that Robyn may have fabricated the charges of abuse.
"[T]he interviews with the children are flawed," the Nov. 21 decision states. "They are laced with leading questions ("Let me tell you what I think you're telling me: ... " ). There are many indications, especially in the interviews of Nicholas, that, in fact, nothing is really remembered," the decision continues.
"In summary, there is much evidence that the allegations were repeatedly suggested to Lucas and Nicholas by their mother, herself a child sexual abuse victim ... and that, ultimately, they cannot be relied upon to support the disposition," wrote the hearing officer. When told of the Nov. 21 DSS decision, jury foreman Luster declined comment, stating, "I did my duty."
CHILD'S EYE VIEW
The commonwealth's attorney discounts the Nov. 21 decision from DSS, contending that the hearing officer handling the administrative appeal did not see all of the evidence.
"The evidence that was presented on behalf of the defense went into the consideration of the hearing officer," he says. "None of the prosecution's evidence, that I can tell, went into consideration."
The prosecutor says that a CPS official attended the administrative appeal unrepresented by his office or any other counsel, and that his office was not given notice of the appeal. "There was not even a phone call to this office," he says, adding that he has scheduled a meeting with CPS to discuss how this could have happened.
Anderson believes that things might have been different if the officer had been able to view some of the prosecution's evidence. "There was a fair amount of physical evidence to corroborate the testimony of the boys," he says, referring to photographs of physical trauma suffered by the boys.
McLaughlin's trial expert testified that evidence of anal scarring on both boys was due to a congenital condition called diastasis ani, and was not proof of molestation -- testimony also challenged by Anderson.
The prosecutor also takes issue with DSS' conclusions that Robyn manipulated the children. While DSS found the five-day period between McLaughlin's admission to adultery and Robyn's accusations to be suspicious, Anderson contends that it shows that she could not have forced the children to make up lies.
"There's been a lot of publicity that the mother brainwashed these kids," Anderson says. "She would have had to have done that over a two-day period" from when she reported the abuse to when the children were first interviewed.
Today McLaughlin relies on Alexander Levay, who has spent much of the last couple of months preparing a habeas petition, an effort that he says has been bolstered by the recent DSS decision. The petition will allege that police altered transcripts of subsequent interviews with the children and that the prosecution failed to disclose the notes that Robyn had prepared for the children. If it is unsuccessful, McLaughlin may spend the next decade downstate in Mecklenburg.
While the habeas petition proceeds, McLaughlin also continues to pursue his Hague application to have his children returned to the United States. He says he understands the strain that coming back to the United States could place on the children, but says it is necessary. And he and his family have promised in affidavits to the international tribunal that they will not press criminal charges against Robyn if she returns with the children.
"My main goal is not to see me exonerated," he says. "I would love to see that happen, but that's a sideline. My main goal is to seek justice for my children."