“Witch Hunt” hits home
Actor Sean Penn makes local appearance, slams DA Ed Jagels in the process during documentary screening on 4/28
*UPDATE 9-15-09 - click link for story: John Stoll recieves $5 million settlement from county for 20 year incarceration.
Sean Penn addresses crowd at The Fox on 4/28. Photos by NL Belardes
By NL Belardes/Face News, Bakotopia.com contributor
Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, documentary filmmakers, and a host of formerly accused child molesters whose convictions in the mid-’80s were later overturned, were at the Bakersfield Fox Theater on Tuesday, April 28 for a screening of, “Witch Hunt.”
The film chronicles the lives of several exonerated families and their past ordeals as they faced Bakersfield’s justice system, and get wrongly convicted and separated from their children. The film alleges that children’s testimonies were coerced by Kern County officials and evidence was withheld that could have earlier exonerated those falsely convicted.
“I got involved because of a great friend of mine who lost his life on Flight 93,” said Penn, who narrated the film. He added that through related 9/11 memorial events he met the filmmakers of “Witch Hunt,” and that his deceased friend had spoke highly of the filmmakers and their movie and it was a privilege to have been a part of the film.
Above: John Stoll's '85 mughshot.
There were audible gasps from audience members as the film revealed convictions that in numerous cases added up to hundreds of years of placed upon single individuals. As the film progressed, some in the audience yelled out against the Kern County justice system and at District Attorney Ed Jagels.
There was a standing ovation as the film ended and those exonerated entered the stage, including Jeff Modahl, Marcella and Rick Pitts, Brenda and Scott Kniffen, John Stoll and others.
During a question-and-answer session, people in the audience voiced their anger at the past child molestation convictions and questioned why DA Jagels consistently runs unopposed in local elections.
Above: Victims, lawyers, and filmmakers participate in Q&A session after film. The group received a standing ovation from the very emotional crowd on 4/28.
One of the formerly accused just held out his hands as if similarly baffled, while filmmaker Dana Nachman said, “Does anyone here know who can run against him?” One person from the audience yelled out prosecutor Lisa Green’s name (it’s been reported she is running against Jagels in 2010), and at that, many in the audience let out a groan. The film portrayed Green as a prosecutor willing to attack the integrity of those who once testified against the formerly accused, who recanted statements made during the ‘80s trials.
Penn also took a verbal jab at Jagels just after stepping onto the stage. “Sorry, I was distracted. I was reading Ed Jagel’s wife’s complaints against him,” he joked.
Despite it’s serious intent, one problem with the film “Witch Hunt” by filmmakers Don Hardy and Dana Nachman, and narrated by Penn, is its simple-minded approach to its portrayal of Bakersfield. Opening scenes of modern day oil wells and churches seemed unnecessary stereotypes as the documentary illuminated the area as simply an oil-rich, God-fearing city. The idea that Bakersfield is a multicultural city, complete with various industries, academic institutions and more was completely ignored. What oilfields have to do with child molestation trials is an odd sort of connection that was never explained.
The film however does a good job of telling the stories of broken lives, society’s sexual predator fears as it banks on emotional reactions to the documentary’s air of “justice gone wrong.” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood in the film doesn’t appear apologetic, as he says interrogations of children in the mid-‘80s should had been conducted in a different manner. He infers that a different method of sheriff’s department interrogations would have led to molestations and satanic ritual convictions and no exonerations.
“I think we have to set a precedent and a deterrent for the kind of behavior [and] the prosecutorial abuse that happened in this case,” Penn said as he spoke about accountability related to the child molestation accusations.
After the screening of “Witch Hunt” a woman stood up, saying her father was a Kern County sheriff’s deputy during the mid-1980s. She claimed that at the time he was reassigned for speaking out against sheriff’s department procedures. She apologized in behalf of her father to those exonerated and their families.
When asked what some of the exonerated thought of the film, John Stoll spoke up. Referring to the standing ovation at the end of the film, he said, “We feel the same about the movie that you did.”
"Witch Hunt" is available on DVD.
*Originally posted on 4/29/09 by FaceNews
Also printed in Bakotopia magazine, issue 54, 5-14-09