Elsie Oscarson Case Summary
Elsie Oscarson is serving a life sentence for allegedly molesting her two sons at her home in Vermont when they were three and four years old. She was supposed to have engaged in oral sex with them. She has steadfastly maintained her innocence. In 2000, she refused to take a plea bargain that would have allowed her to walk free (at that point she had already served two years in jail without a trial). She was sentenced to 35-years-to-life in prison, but she refuses to take “sex offender treatment,” because that would mean admitting guilt, which she will never do, so she will never be paroled and will serve a life sentence unless she is granted a new trial or she is pardoned or her sentence commuted. She has been incarcerated since 1998, and she is almost certainly innocent. She has been sent out of state to the MCI-Framingham prison in Massachusetts, far from her supportive sister in Burlington, Vermont.
The allegations all started on August 15, 1995, when three-year-old Jesse Oscarson had a painful red rash in his buttocks area, due to diarrhea. While playing on a sandy beach during a boat trip on Lake Champlain, near Burlington, Vermont, he complained to Suzanne DuPont, his foster mother, “My bum-bum hurts.” DuPont had been told by the Vermont SRS people (Vermont Social and Rehabilitative Services, now called the Vermont Department of Children and Families), the child protective service of Vermont, that Jesse’s mother, Elsie Oscarson, was an alleged sex abuser whose first three children had been taken away from her in Tennessee five years previously, and to look for any indications of sex abuse.
[Background: These Tennessee allegations arose in 1989 in the midst of a mythical “satanic ritual abuse” panic in the United States. They began when Elsie Oscarson’s seven-year-old daughter, Jill, told her that Hugh Roberts, Elsie’s boyfriend and the father of Jill’s half-siblings, had groped her. Elsie turned him in to the police. Despite her initiating the complaint, the charges quickly escalated to include Elsie as an alleged abuser as well, involving ritual abuse elements, the torture and killing of [non-existent] pets, and the like. Although Elsie was never tried for sex abuse in Tennessee, her children were taken from her. She never stopped hoping to reunite with them, but she moved back to her native Vermont. She had three more children with two different men (and two more after the allegations arose, both of whom were taken from her at birth). She never married. In need of open-heart surgery, she was exhausted and her children sometimes went to the Field of Dreams Day Care Center poorly clothed and hungry. Suzanne DuPont, the day care owner, and Jennifer Dawson, a caregiver there, complained to the Vermont SRS, beginning in November 1994. The SRS finally removed the children in late July 1995, giving Joey to Jennifer Dawson as a temporary foster mother and Jesse to Suzanne DuPont. Brittany, barely two and still in diapers, went to another foster family.]
Now, on the beach, DuPont thought that Jesse’s complaint might be related to his mother’s sexual abuse. She began to question the three-year-old about what his mother might have done to him. Such leading questions to a preschooler are known to lead — all too frequently — to false allegations. “Does anything else hurt your bum-bum?” she asked. Jesse allegedly “disclosed” to DuPont, “Mommy hurts my bum-bum, she throws a hammer at it.” When pressed for more, he allegedly said, “Mommy hurts my pee-pee, she pinches it and bites and pulls it.” When pushed further, he allegedly said, “Mommy drinks my pee-pee, and that feels good.” A few days later, DuPont contacted the Vermont SRS, which contacted the police. Over the next few weeks, DuPont encouraged Jesse to reveal more abuse. “Jesse seems to like to talk about what his Mommy does to him,” she reported in a sworn statement in mid-September 1995. According to her, Jesse said, “Mommy hurts me, Tony hurts me. Tony puts his pee-pee in my mouth, he puts it in Joey’s and Brittany’s and Mommy’s too… Tony puts his pee-pee in my bum-bum. That scares me and it hurts.” He allegedly said that Joey and his mother witnessed this abuse. This refers to Tony Mayette, Elsie’s boyfriend, who was never arrested or questioned. He also supposedly said, “I touch Mommy’s pee-pee. She likes it.”
On August 15, 1995, Suzanne DuPont almost certainly called Jennifer Dawson about Jesse’s “disclosures” and asked her to question four-year-old Joey, which she did. [Dawson later recalled that the disclosures just happened to occur spontaneously from Jesse and Joey on the same day.] That night, Joey didn’t want to go to sleep. Around midnight, according to Dawson, he said, “Mommy gets mad if I have an accident,” referring to wetting or messing the bed. He then allegedly said, obviously in response to Dawson’s prodding, “Mommy touches Jesse down there,” pointing to his penis. Dawson asked if she also touched Joey there, and he said, “Yes,” but pointed to his face. His response to more leading questions didn’t amount to much, other than him saying “Mommy is mean at bedtime.” Within a month, however, she allegedly got Joey to say, “Mommy licks my pee-pee… Bear noises, she makes bear noises… I pet Momma’s pee-pee,” and more. Bear in mind, however, that all of these direct quotes are second-hand hearsay. None of these conversations were recorded.
Over the next few months, many different people interrogated Jesse and Joey — a psychologist, a pediatrician, social workers, the police, prosecutors. All assumed that the children had been sexually abused. The children had no contact with their mother, Elsie Oscarson, who became an abstract demon in their minds and memories. By the time the case finally went to trial in 2000, when the boys were eight and nine, their testimony would have been virtually meaningless, since their memories would have been irretrievably contaminated.
The case against Elsie rested almost entirely on hearsay evidence, which is permissible under Vermont law in child abuse cases, if it meets certain prerequisites. Jesse was not in state during the trial and did not testify. (For that reason, Elsie’s conviction for abusing him was overturned on appeal, but the conviction for abusing Joey was upheld.) Joey did testify, but mostly in one-syllable answers in response to leading questions. He testified from a room outside the courtroom by remote video feed, conveying the idea that seeing his mother in court would be too traumatic, but making his testimony difficult to hear.
The psychologist and pediatrician testified, along with the social worker and police involved. Elsie’s court-appointed lawyers called no character witnesses and, most significantly, no expert witness to testify about the suggestibility of young children, the dangers of leading interviews, the way adult words and suggestions tend to be recalled erroneously as coming spontaneously from children, and the likelihood of false allegations under such circumstances.
There was another crucial piece of evidence that Elsie’s lawyers failed to introduce or discuss during the trial. On September 1, 1995, Vermont policewoman Linda Carey conducted a tape-recorded interview with four-year-old Joey Oscarson, in the presence of Jennifer Dawson, his foster mother. It is apparently the only direct evidence that exists of what either of the children actually said in the days soon after the allegations arose. (The police tried to record an interview with Jesse, but the microphone battery was dead.) This interview transcript is revealing and appalling. Joey clearly wanted only to play with toys and did not at first respond to the many leading questions asked him. By this time, Joey had been repeatedly interviewed in a leading manner by at least five people. Yet he had not been forthcoming, and he was not very cooperative in this interview, either, beginning with the attempt to verify that he understood the difference between the truth and a lie. Carey asked him to identify a toy automobile, but he insisted that it was an airplane, that it did not drive down the street, and that it traveled in the water. “Do you have blonde hair?” she asked him. [He apparently did have blonde hair.] No, he said. He claimed it was black, then said he was kidding. “Where is Jennifer?” she asked, and he said that she was at home, when in fact she was sitting in the room with them. So it was pretty clear that whatever Joey said was not going to be very trustworthy. But that didn’t bother Carey. She forged on.
“You told Jen Jen that Mom did some other stuff, didn’t you?” Joey: “Nah.” Carey persisted: “What did you tell Jen Jen?” Joey said that Jen Jen told his mother not to break the light. Carey persisted: “What other things did you tell Jen Jen?” Joey: “Nothing.” So that is the pattern of this interview. Joey wasn’t saying what Carey wanted, but she would not take No for an answer. This is all too familiar to those who deal with cases in which children are led into making false allegations.
Carey became more explicit: “When I talked to Jesse, Jesse was telling me about some stuff that happened at your old house with Mom. Did you ever see anything happen with Jesse at your old house?” Joey: “No.” Carey, obviously unhappy with this answer: “No? Did you ever see Mom that made… wasn’t right, was a bad touch?” Joey: “No.” Carey persisted. “But Jesse told me something else too…about Mom touching him some place…. Did you see that? No? What happened to Jesse?” Joey: “Don’t know.”
Finally, on page 24 of the interview transcript, Carey had worn Joey down and he said, “She licks it,” referring to his pee-pee. But Joey was clearly not the least bit interested in this. Carey asked about how she licked his pee pee with her lips, and Joey responded, “You don’t have no more,” about the checkers they were playing with. Carey asked, “How does that make you feel, Joey?” but he ignored her and played with the checkers.
Carey wrote up her report of this interview. “He understands the difference between truth and lie, although at times he can be observed to have a smirking facial expression, answers incorrectly, and states ‘kidding.’ “ Out of the lengthy interview, she extracted and quoted only those statements that Joey was finally pressured into making about “Mom touches my peepee” etc.
In summary — Elsie Oscarson obviously struggled as a mother. Before she was incarcerated, she had eight children by three different men. She held only infrequent jobs and lived primarily on welfare. But all that is not relevant to why she is serving a life sentence for a crime she did not commit.