Names of all children and their families have been changed.
Last spring, after serving 12 years of a mandatory 50-year sentence, a
convicted child molester named Harold Grant Snowden walked free, released by a
federal court that overturned his 1986 conviction. The case against Snowden
had been one of a string of high-profile day-care molestation convictions that
reverberated across the nation in the 1980's and early 1990's. Snowden's
release, like that of others convicted of child sex abuse, has raised anew
questions about the manner and means by which prosecutions of these crimes were
brought. In seeking justice on behalf of the children, had prosecutors unjustly
convicted innocent men and women?
In 1984, Grant Snowden was honored as South Miami's Police Officer of the Year.
Within a year, however, he stood accused of molesting pre-schoolers cared for
by his wife. The charges originated from an allegation of a three-year-old boy,
Greg Wilkes (not his real name), who, according to his parents, revealed one
day that Grant had "kissed my pee-pee." Snowden was suspended from the force
while an investigation of the allegation was undertaken. The prosecutors
ultimately dropped the case for lack of sufficient evidence. But two months later,
amid intense publicity about day-care molestations, the State Attorney's office
resumed its investigation of Snowden.
In a preemptive effort, Snowden's attorney elicited supportive character
references from two neighbors who used the babysitting service. Mrs. Banks and
Mrs. Blandes both offered sworn statements affirming their satisfaction with
the Snowdens. Mrs. Banks said she was confident that Grant had not hurt her
child. Mrs. Blandes said that she was satisfied, after questioning her
daughter, that no abuse had occurred. However, both parents' conclusions
would change and both of their children would become central witnesses in two
separate prosecution cases against Snowden.
The first case was brought in April, 1985. The State Attorney's office charged
Snowden with sexually molesting Carol Banks, an 11 year-old girl. The young
Banks said that Snowden had rubbed his penis against her vagina on several
successive days in 1977 - eight years earlier. Carol's mother testified that
she questioned her daughter about possible abuse after having provided her
supportive character statement to Snowden's attorney. Though initially denying
any abuse occcurred, the 11 year-old did then allege that Snowden had molested
Snowden's defense attorney questioned the credibility of the young girl's
statements. In addition, the defense suggested that the girl was not even at
the Snowdens at the time of the alleged abuse, but rather across the street at
Snowden's sister's house, who also provided babysitting. Snowden's sister had
cancelled checks indicating payments from Banks' mother from that period. The
jury did not hear that young Carol Banks had made similar allegations against
another man several years earlier, allegations that were never proven. There
was no physical evidence of abuse; there was only the word of young Carol
Banks. The jury deliberated for four hours before returning a verdict of not
guilty. But Snowden's troubles were not over.
Even before the Banks trial, prosecutors had begun building yet another case
against Snowden. This time the central allegations came from Leslie Blandes, a
five-year-old who had been babysat by Janice Snowden from the time she was five
months old until she was just over three. Though Leslie had on two occasions
denied to her mother that Grant had molested her in any way, Mrs. Blandes took
her daughter to the State Attorney's office for questioning by Dr. Laurie
Braga. During the course of the interview,
Leslie alleged that Grant had penetrated her vagina with his finger and
placed his penis "inside" her vagina and in the
mouths of her and her six-month old brother.
But prosecutors had learned a valuable lesson from their previous effort to
convict Snowden. "What we learned from the first case was that the jurors
apparently from the first case didn't believe the one child," recalls David
Markus, lead prosecutor in Snowden's second case. "They didn't believe it
sufficiently to have no reasonable doubt about his guilt."
So prosecutors pursued a strategy of multiple witnesses. To establish a pattern
of conduct, they secured the testimony of Greg Wilkes, from whom the original
allegation stemmed, and Karen Marks, a six-year-old who claimed that Snowden molested
her when she was three. The
prosecutors also added medical evidence to establish Snowden's guilt. The
Wilkes boy had tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat. And Leslie Blandes
was diagnosed by a doctor at the Rape Treatment Center as having Gardnerella
vaginitis, a disease the doctor would later tell the jury was sexually
Finally, the prosecutors called on testimony from several child abuse experts,
including Dr. Laurie Braga and Dr. Simon Miranda, who had interviewed Leslie
Blandes after she had been questioned by Dr. Braga. During the trial,
Dr. Braga testified that it is not possible to brainwash kids or get kids to
say something that is not true. Dr. Miranda testified that it was exceedingly
rare that children would fabricate stories of abuse, stating that in over 1000
child interviews he had never encountered a situation where children had
entirely fabricated allegations of abuse and only rarely, "in the realm of five
instances," had the children made up stories of abuse due to influence from
others. In closing arguments, the prosecutors emphasized that, according to Dr.
Miranda, 99.5% of children tell the truth about sexual abuse.
On March 7, 1986, after little more than one hour of deliberation, the jury
returned a guilty verdict on all five counts of sexual battery. Snowden was
sentenced to five mandatory life terms, one running consecutively. Grant
Snowden would not be eligible for parole for at least 50 years.
Despite retaining the representation of well-known defense attorney F. Lee
Bailey, Snowden's appellate efforts were denied all the way through the Supreme
Court of Florida. But on a federal habeas appeal submitted by attorneys Robert
Rosenthal and Arthur Cohen, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998
reversed and remanded Snowden's conviction. In its decision, the Court stated
that the prosecution had unfairly presented expert testimony to bolster the
credibility of the children's testimony. In particular, the Court singled out
the testimony of Dr. Simon Miranda.
In addition to the testimony of Miranda, Snowden's federal appellate attorneys
argued that Dr. Braga's interviews were overtly suggestive and coercive,
claiming that "[e]very single sexual comment and allegation made by Leslie was
first suggested to her by Braga." An amicus brief filed by nine scientists,
including Dr. Stephen Ceci, a pyschology professor at Cornell University,
concluded that the child witnesses interviewed by Braga "underwent extremely
suggestive interviews" which make "the determination of accuracy [of
allegations] impossible. In other words, if there were instances of sexual
abuse, the faulty interviewing procedures make it impossible to ever know who
the perpetrators were and how the abuse occurred."
The appellate attorneys also argued that the medical evidence presented to the
jury was unsubstantiated. In regard to the Gardnerella vaginitis, Rosenthal
argued that Dr. Dorothy Hicks, of the Rape Treatment Center, had failed to
complete a full diagnosis. The trial transcript indicates that Dr. Hicks made
her diagnosis of Gardnerella based solely on a microscopic examination and
then disposed of the evidence.
Furthermore, Dr. Hicks testified at trial that Gardnerella vaginitis is a
sexually transmitted disease and that it was unlikely that Leslie contracted
the condition through any other means. There is now contradictory research
indicating that Gardnerella vaginitas may not be sexually transmitted.
In addition, the oral gonorrhea findings, it turns out, are questionable. One
week after Greg Wilkes tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat, without any
interim treatment, the young boy was tested again. This time the findings were
negative. More significantly, several medical research studies conducted in the
mid-1980s evidenced a clear concern about the mis-identification of gonorrhea.
Worried that child sex abuse investigations had been initiated on the basis of
erroneous gonorrhea tests, in 1988, researchers at the Centers for Disease
Control recommended that biomedical labs utilize extra precautionary procedures
to ensure accurate testing results for gonorrhea - particularly for medicolegal
purposes. The testing laboratory used by Dr. Hicks at Jackson Memorial Hospital
in Miami did not follow such precautionary procedures in its gonorrhea
In reversing the Snowden conviction, the Eleventh Circuit concluded "that
allowing expert testimony to boost the credibility of the main witness against
Snowden - considering the lack of other evidence of guilt - violated his right
to due process by making his criminal trial fundamentally unfair." The case was
remanded for a new trial. Former prosecutor David Markus says the State
Attorney is ready for just that. "I think there will be another trial. I've
spoken with the prosecutors in the office, who have had involvement with the
case. They have told me that the victims are all available and all willing to
come to court and prosecute this case."
The State has made no formal pronouncement on whether it plans to take Grant
Snowden to trial yet again, for the third time. It has appealed the 11th
Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. As of October 1998, the Court has
not yet granted review but, more significantly, has not yet denied review for
the current term.