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Felony Charges Dropped in Idaho Woman's Case

Aired June 28, 2001 - 20:30   ET


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Moments ago, charges were reduced in an Idaho court case that has been in the headlines for the past month.

Tonight's flashpoint: The Idaho child case.

On May 29, Idaho authorities arrested Joann McGuckin on charges of child neglect, after her oldest daughter came home from the Navy and filed a complaint. But for the next five days, five of her other children refused to leave the house, seeking dogs on authorities and threatening to shoot them.

This week at a preliminary hearing for Joann McGuckin, authorities played a tape showing the conditions inside the home. It is littered with garbage, broken furniture, spoiled food, mice, and dog droppings. And in court Wednesday, McGuckin's daughter Erina testified the family regularly ate bred that had been gnawed by rodents, and had to remove animal feces from their food as it was cooking.

Apparently, the pictures don't tell the full story. Because this afternoon, an Idaho judge decided all felony charges against Joann McGuckin should be dropped, although she still faces misdemeanors. Joining me from San Point, Idaho is Joann McGuckin's attorney Bryce Powell.

Bryce, thank you for joining me.


Bryce, you just walked out of court. What happened in court?

POWELL: Well, we just concluded the preliminary hearing and the judge decided there was not enough evidence to sustain the felony charge of injury to a child and so, ordered that dismissed, but allowed the prosecutor to ammend to a misdemeanor.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, so your client doesn't have felony, but is she now out of custody?

POWELL: She will be. There are now no conditions attached to her release on the misdemeanor, so there are no conditions for her to object to.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bryce, what brought -- I mean -- who testified against your client?

POWELL: There were some inspectors from the state with regard to the sanitary conditions in the home. The oldest daughter Erina testified and I think that was the primary witness against my client.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about her daughter Katherine? She was expected to testify today, did she testify?

POWELL: Yes, she did.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what did she say, because she was one of the children involved in the standoff?

POWELL: Yes. She testified what the family had gone through, what it was like to live with no running water and care for their father 24 hours a day. She talked about the fact that he had been sick with MS for as long as she can remember, and that the children still in spite of this -- it was important to their parents that they play, that they read books, that they have an opportunity to be children.

There were seven children and she also testified as to a decision they made as a family to basically let the house go. And attend to the matters most important to them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, I know you object to this video that has been released -- who made the video and who released it?

POWELL: The Bonner County sheriff's office made this video. It was the prosecutor who played it at the preliminary hearing. I argued against it being released to the media, citing the interests of the children, their privacy, their best interest. And not to mention the fact that I hoped to get it suppressed, should we have gone to district court.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was your client's reaction as the video was being shown to the court?

POWELL: She didn't believe that that was in the same condition the last she saw it. Concedingly, the house has been quite a mess by most contemporary standards for quite awhile however.

VAN SUSTEREN: Her daughter Erina, the oldest one who returned from the Navy, who brought the original complaint, had some pretty devastating things to say about the conditions that the other children were living in. Does your client deny those conditions and does she suggest the oldest child was exaggerating?

POWELL: I think there's no question that this family lived in some tough conditions, but if you look at the big picture, you have to look at how tragic their life had become. This was a family that was affluent, that was doing well, and had slipped into poverty and ultimately the death of the father.

One thing that was important that came out today, is, four days after the father's death, Joann called the sheriff's office asking for help in a number of forms. She asked for help to get Social Security; asked for help to get a doctor; asked for help for buying property they did own to get money for the family.

Rather than giving her that help, they decided instead to lure her from her home and place her under arrest and take custody of the children.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where are the children now?

POWELL: They are in a foster home here in Bonner County, Idaho.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has your client had any contact with them by telephone?

POWELL: She had one contact with the children by telephone. She got to speak with her daughter Katherine briefly in the courtroom today and she did have one personal visit while she was at the jail.

VAN SUSTEREN: What is the expectation once she is released, in terms of being reunited with the children?

POWELL: Well, certainly, that is our next goal in this case, is to get the family reunited and back on their feet. I can't give you an opinion as to what time frame we are looking at.

VAN SUSTEREN: How is your client doing?

POWELL: Well, this has been very hard on her. You know, she -- she is angry on the one hand, she misses her children dearly on the other. It's been a tough situation for her. I think she's really held up pretty well, all things considered.

VAN SUSTEREN: How did they get into such dire financial straits to begin with?

POWELL: Well, I think it began when the father became ill. He came from a background of affluence and developed MS, it's not clear how long ago, but at least 13 years ago. Not long after, he lost the use of his legs and for five years, has been basically bedridden.

They lived off a trust fund for a while. His business, which was a lumber mill, failed when he obviously couldn't work. The mother had had seven children within 11 years. And as they cared for their father and honored his wishes, it basically became a fight to survive and that was the mode they were living in: Survival.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bryce, was your client treated fairly, all in all, when you look back at this? Or has this been a miscarriage of justice in your view?

POWELL: In my opinion, no. I think that this is a family that needed help. I think that this is a community issue. Certainly, they had some legitimate concerns. I just did not agree with the way they handled those concerns and addressed them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you know if the children are anxious to get reunited with their mother and to try and at least pick up the pieces after the standoff of being separated from her?

POWELL: I know they are.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you make of that standoff?

POWELL: From the children's perspective, their mother had been lured away from the home under the guys of taking of her make a phone call for Social Security. The officer came back, tried to convince the kids to leave the home but they didn't believe the officer. He grabbed one of the children, who was able to wiggle away from him, and the dogs came after him.

The sheriff -- the deputy shot three times, injuring two of the dogs. Now from the children's perspective, they didn't know if it was their brother who had been shot and killed. The brother did not return to the house at that point. They knew their mother had been taken, that shots had been fired, that their brother had disappeared and that two of their dogs had been shot, one in the head and one near the spine. So, they were scared and afraid that they might have to defend themselves.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Bryce Powell, thank you for joining me tonight out of Idaho. The charges have been reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor for his client.



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