When a child claims abuse, adults are supposed to listen.
This past spring, however, when 12 adults spent 3 weeks listening to an adolescent girl’s accusations that her father had molested her, 11 of them found it hard to believe.
Her father has served 5 years in jail because of those allegations. He remains imprisoned because of a shoddy investigation by a Lee’s Summit cop who was sleeping with the accused’s wife, and because an assistant prosecutor withheld evidence in a 1999 trial, and because of one obstinate juror when the case was retried.
When lawyers select a jury, they attempt to find people who will listen to all the evidence, weigh it fairly and follow the law. For the attorneys handling the father’s second trial this past spring, that turned out to be harder than they thought.
In May, 150 prospective jurors were called to Judge Charles Atwell’s Jackson County courtroom, where they learned a few facts about the case they would decide if they were selected.
Though they didn’t yet know his name, they learned that a man — Ted White — was found guilty of 12 counts of sexual abuse against his adolescent daughter when he first went to trial in 1999. After he was sentenced to 50 years in prison, White fled to Costa Rica.
Under a Missouri law known as the escape rule, a judge can deny the appeal of a convict who flees. But the circumstances surrounding White’s trial were so troubling that he had been given a second chance.
Shortly after White fled, his attorneys learned that his wife, Tina White, had been having an affair with Lee’s Summit police detective Richard McKinley — the detective who was investigating White’s daughter’s allegations that White had sexually abused her.
Tina White and Richard McKinley later testified that they had begun dating after McKinley completed his investigation but before White’s 1999 trial. Prosecutors had known that McKinley was sleeping with Tina White when they called Tina White and McKinley as witnesses against Ted White, but they didn’t tell the jury.
In 2002, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District Judge James Smart wrote that Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Jenni Mettler had violated White’s constitutional rights by withholding that information. He also noted that McKinley had discovered one of White’s daughter’s diaries — in which she had written nothing about any sort of abuse — but had failed to seize the diary as evidence. “The suppression [of evidence] undermines confidence in the verdict,” Smart wrote. He ordered a new trial for White.
During jury selection for that new trial this past spring, White’s defense attorneys asked whether any members of the pool would be unable to render a not guilty verdict for someone who had fled the country. One man stood up, a juror recalls, but the other 149 said they’d be able to weigh the evidence fairly anyway. This time around, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office was prosecuting the case; Jackson County prosecutors had recused themselves. Over 2 days, attorneys for both sides worked together to select 12 jurors.
The previous trial had lasted 3 days, but this year’s trial went on for 3 weeks, ending the first week of June.
During the 1999 trial, White had been represented by a private defense attorney, Jim Speck. This time, White was represented by attorneys Sean O’Brien and Cyndy Short from the nonprofit Public Interest Litigation Clinic. PILC attorneys usually handle only death penalty cases and appeals, but O’Brien, who had represented White during his appeal, had taken the unusual step of asking to represent White at his trial because he believed White was innocent.
O’Brien and Short spent hundreds of hours investigating claims, interviewing witnesses, obtaining documents and creating timelines in the case — which Short says Speck never did.
Many of their prospective jurors might not have been able to relate to Ted White Jr. — a rich Lee’s Summit workaholic with questionable taste in women who hired nannies to spend time with his children. But most of them could understand that anyone could be falsely accused of a crime.
As hard as it is to fathom a little girl making up sexual allegations against her father and sticking to the story for years, Short and O’Brien had discovered a family situation in which that seemed plausible.
By the end of deliberations, 11 of the 12 jurors agreed with them.
During the course of the 3-week trial, Short and O’Brien retraced Ted and Tina White’s family history. The account that follows is essentially what the jury heard, according to the Pitch‘s examination of court records and interviews with jurors.
White, a good-looking former high school football star from southwest Missouri, was attending chiropractic school in Lee’s Summit when he met Tina McKenna, a twice-divorced mother of two, in 1990. A few weeks after they started dating, she and her children moved into his apartment. The couple married in the winter of 1991. Ted White’s mother, Myrna White, a reserved woman, disliked Tina from the start — she disapproved of the way her new daughter-in-law dressed in low-cut dresses and tight sweaters. After the wedding, Myrna White stopped speaking to her son.
Ted White dropped out of school and discovered a talent for sales; he eventually started a company that helped consumers get discounts on vision products. In his spare time, he played golf with business associates and socialized with his wife and their neighbors. They kept pornographic tapes and assorted sex lotions in their bedroom; sometimes they had sex loudly enough for the children to overhear them.
The Whites talked about the possibility of Ted adopting Tina’s children: Jami, who was 6 at the time of the marriage, and Danny, then 5. But it took several years to convince the children’s father, Danny McKenna, to sign away his parental rights. At one point during their battle over child support, Tina White filed an order accusing McKenna of beating her and threatening to kill her. (In a later deposition, though, she admitted that he had never been violent toward her.)
Eventually Tina convinced McKenna to give up the children. (Later, according to court testimony, Tina White would confide to one of the family’s nannies that she had wanted Ted White to be the official father because he had “deeper pockets.” And she would tell a friend that if McKenna hadn’t signed the papers, she would have accused him of showing pornography to Jami and Danny.)
As the adoption worked its way through the courts, and social workers, lawyers and psychologists conducted investigations to make sure the adoption was in the children’s best interest, Tina White gave birth to her and Ted’s child, Tanner, in June 1995.
Months later, in October, the Whites moved from a modest home on Onyx Street in Lee’s Summit to a $300,000 house in the city’s exclusive Lakewood subdivision. The following January, a judge finalized the adoption. A nanny who worked for the family at the time, Sharon Beaty, would later recall that the family celebrated the adoption that night and that everybody was happy about it, including Jami.
The family’s two nannies noticed that Ted White seemed to be a loving father but a strict disciplinarian. He appeared to be madly in love with Tina, doting on her and buying her expensive jewelry and furs. But the two had always had a volatile relationship, and they fought often, sometimes in front of the children.
As Jami got older, her parents heaped more responsibility on her. By the time she was 11, she was babysitting Tanner and changing his diapers, doing the family laundry and cleaning her parents’ bedroom. Ted White’s mother, Myrna, who had come back into her son’s life when Tanner was born, thought they treated Jami like a servant. Jami complained to relatives that she had to do the family’s chores without help from Danny, presumably because he was a boy.
When Jami started middle school at Hall McCarter in Blue Springs, she wrote in her diary that she felt neglected by Tina, who seemed always to be talking on the phone. Around that time, Tina White told a counselor that she had trouble relating to Jami, a tomboyish child with straight red hair and freckles who favored T-shirts and sweatpants, played basketball at school and ran around outside with her brother and the neighbor boys.
Despite Jami’s interests, her new father usually didn’t include her in his activities with Danny. He left her behind when the two of them went on camping and fishing trips to the family’s cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks. Danny would later remember that Jami repeatedly asked her father to take her on a trip to the lake, just the two of them, the way he did with Danny. The family recalls that White made several promises to do so but always backed out.
Ted White began traveling more frequently for business. Tina White accused her husband of neglecting the family. They went to marriage counseling, but their discord intensified.
In September 1997, the couple had yet another fight, and Ted White left. His wife’s mother spotted him at a casino and called Tina to report it; Tina had Jami and Danny put all of Ted’s belongings in garbage bags and throw them in the garage, then she locked him out. When he came home late that night, he broke down the door and went to bed. Tina called the police and had them arrest her husband. As usual, however, the couple made up afterward; he was back the next day.
A few days later, according to court testimony by one of the nannies, Lee’s Summit detective McKinley, who has a side business as a handyman, arrived in street clothes to fix the door frame Ted had broken. (Tina White and McKinley would later deny that McKinley had gone to the Whites’ home that day. McKinley testified that he had never seen Tina White before the day he was sent to her house to investigate Jami’s allegations.)
Also that month, Tina White opened her own bank account with half the money she and her husband had received from refinancing their house.
The Whites’ financial problems began to strain the family — they were finding it difficult to maintain their lifestyle. When Ted’s company went public, he left under duress with no job lined up, and he tried to start a new business. But the family needed cash, and a desperate Ted White borrowed more than $10,000 from one of the nannies, Nina Morerod. In November 1997, Ted and Tina separated, and in the middle of that month, she filed a petition for divorce.
When her father packed up and left, Jami acted happy. “I hope he never walks though that door again,” she told Morerod.
But to Jami’s disappointment, the couple reconciled at the end of the month, and White moved back into the house. The marital sniping resumed almost immediately.
Then Jami’s life seemed to get even more miserable. In January 1998, she got a bad haircut that looked like a boy’s. At school, where she had few friends, the other kids teased her about her hair, making comments such as “Jami has a penis.” She was visibly upset about the ongoing teasing — several relatives noticed it. That winter, Jami went on a ski trip with a group of kids from church. When she came back, she told her mom about two girls who were cousins and seemed to know a lot about sex — they had told Jami stories of having been molested. One said her grandfather had “fingered” her and made her give him “blow jobs.”
During the winter, Ted White was often out of town on trips to Dallas, trying to get investors for his new company, which provided insurance for small-business owners. In February 1998, Jami, a basketball fan, begged him to take her to the upcoming Big 12 women’s basketball tournament in Kansas City in early March. He agreed, and Jami was looking forward again to spending time with her dad. It was probably the only day she’d get with him for a while — his next few weeks were booked.
Jami was so excited about the tournament that she had arranged to miss school that day. But at the last minute, White backed out of taking her, saying he had to work. Jami was crushed. Her Uncle Ryan took her instead. He recalled later that she held his hand the whole time they were at the tournament.
The following weeks were all business for Ted White. The first weekend in March he had more than a dozen business associates fly in from various cities to prepare for a big meeting in Dallas the following week. They spent all day Saturday at Ted White’s office, then came to the family home for a dinner that Tina had prepared. They had planned to work all day Sunday before flying to Texas that night. But when they heard that a freak spring snowstorm was on the way, they broke off early and rushed to the airport to get earlier flights so they wouldn’t be stranded.
White finally took a break from work 2 weeks later to take Danny on a Boy Scout trip the weekend of March 21. As they packed to leave that Saturday morning, Jami bounced her basketball in the driveway. She came into the house and argued that she should be able to go along on the trip. But her father told her this was a trip for boys only. He said she should use the weekend to spend some time with her mother.
White and Danny pulled out of the driveway and drove off, leaving Jami behind. She continued to bounce her basketball in the driveway. After a while she went inside. Her mother was on the phone. Jami tried to get Tina’s attention, but Tina made her wait. When Tina got off the phone, Jami said, “Mom, I have to tell you something.”
Jami prefaced her statements by saying, “Mom, you’re going to have to divorce dad after what I tell you,” Tina White later recalled. “Mom,” Jami said, “Dad’s been touching me where he’s not supposed to.”
Jami told her about numerous times her father had “fingered” her as they sat under blankets on the family couch with Tina sitting nearby. Sometimes, Jami said, he made her give him “blow jobs.”
Tina called the police. Officer Richard Bledsoe from the Lee’s Summit Police Department arrived and talked to Tina alone and then to Jami, to corroborate what Tina had told him.
Tina White sent Jami to sleep at Tina’s mother’s house that night and waited for Ted and Danny to arrive home the next day. When Tina confronted her husband, in front of his mother (whom Tina had called to the house the day before), he yelled, “Bullshit!” White accused his wife of having found a way to make sure she got the house in the divorce proceedings, and he demanded that Jami get a physical exam. Tina told him to get out of the house, and he left with his mother.
A few days later, Detective McKinley was assigned to the case, and he met with Tina and Jami White.
McKinley interviewed only Jami, Tina, Danny and a nanny. Including the transcript of Jami’s videotaped interview with the Child Protection Center at Children’s Mercy Hospital, the investigative file was only fifty pages long. McKinley spent a week investigating, then turned his findings over to the Jackson County prosecutor’s office. In mid-April, after an arrest warrant was issued, McKinley went by himself to Ted White’s office and arrested him.
Two weeks later, McKinley drove his Harley Davidson to Ted White’s house to take Tina on their first date.
According to Mc-Kinley, the two quickly fell in love. When he told Lee’s Summit Police Chief Ken Conlee about the relationship, Conlee ordered him to stop seeing Tina. McKinley disobeyed — instead, he and Tina made up an alias, “Curt,” so the children wouldn’t know who Tina was dating, and they started spending weekends at a bed and breakfast in Lawrence.
Conlee notified the prosecutor’s office about the relationship and launched an internal investigation into McKinley’s conduct. Afterward, the chief placed a letter of reprimand in McKinley’s file, noting that McKinley had made a “serious breach of ethical conduct.”
At the trial in mid-February of the following year, jurors heard only a fraction of the information that jurors would hear 5 years later. Much of the testimony came from Tina and Jami; they heard that an exam at Children’s Mercy Hospital had found no physical evidence of abuse, but the prosecution’s expert witness testified that the lack of such evidence didn’t mean that abuse hadn’t occurred. The jury found Ted White guilty on all 12 counts, and a judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison.
White left the country. Federal investigators went to his hometown of Aurora, Missouri, to try to track him down but had little luck. After a nationwide manhunt, during which White’s mug shot was broadcast on America’s Most Wanted, a tipster helped U.S. marshals catch him. He was selling vacation time shares from a kiosk at the Hotel Del Rey in San Jose.
Less than 2 months after the 1999 trial, Tina White and her children moved in with McKinley, and the children began calling the detective “Dad.” Tina and McKinley were married in July 2000. (Ted and Tina White’s divorce was granted in October 1999.)
During White’s second trial, Short would suggest that McKinley might have had ulterior motives — his relationship with Tina — for failing to investigate the case more thoroughly.
The affair obviously could make a jury wonder about the fairness of McKinley’s investigation — and Jackson County prosecutors must have known this when they debated whether to keep that information from White’s defense attorney.
In June 1998, when Claire McCaskill was the Jackson County prosecutor, Jenni Mettler (now Vincent) had taken over the case from another prosecutor, who told Mettler about the affair. After meeting with her cocounsel, Kate Mahoney (who now works for the office of Todd Graves, U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri), and her supervisor, Ted Hunt, Mettler decided not to tell the defense about the relationship, despite the prosecution’s duty to disclose information that might be favorable to the defense.
Before McKinley’s 1999 deposition, he later testified, he had a meeting with Mettler and, at his request, they devised a secret signal: Mettler would clear her throat if the defense attorney asked a question that required him to admit that he was Tina White’s lover. During the deposition, she never cleared her throat, he says, so he fudged the truth. Mettler, however, denied that she and McKinley had arranged a signal.
Ted White’s defense attorneys didn’t find out about the affair until after the trial, when they got a phone call from one of Tina’s male coworkers. Attracted to Tina and resentful of her other suitor, the man told them that Tina was dating McKinley and had been for a while. Eventually, Mettler told the defense that she had known about the affair.
Mettler’s lack of disclosure became a crucial argument for White’s appeal. Even though White had gone to Costa Rica, the appeals court judge concluded that he deserved a new trial because the information about the affair could have affected the outcome of his first trial. Mettler’s assumption that the information was immaterial, Smart wrote, was incorrect.
When Mettler took the stand during the second trial (she’d been called as a prosecution witness), she insisted she had done the right thing, despite the appeals court’s opinion.
“The basis of my decision was that, legally, I did not believe that it was relevant,” Mettler testified at the 2004 trial.
After White’s second trial, the idea
that a man could be put away by a shoddy investigation conducted by someone who seemed more eager to bed the accused’s wife than to find the truth appealed to jurors’ senses of right and wrong.
“I thought it was a cut-and-dried case,” says juror Darrel Priddle, a high school drama teacher from Raytown who was convinced of Ted White’s innocence.
Several jurors reconstructed their deliberations for the Pitch.
Sitting around a conference table, they took an anonymous poll on paper. One juror asked what the undecided ones should do, and Priddle suggested that they write whatever verdict they were leaning toward. By law they would ultimately have to reach a unanimous decision — guilty or not guilty — on each of the 12 counts. Jury foreman Lawrence Smith collected all of the votes: The vote was eight to four in favor of acquittal.
Prosecutors had fought a request that the jurors be allowed to take notes during the trial, but White’s attorneys had prevailed and most of the jurors had each filled between two and six notebooks with reminders about the testimony.
So the jurors turned to their notes, and Smith wrote an outline of the testimony on a flip chart.
Only one juror, Mike Cannavan, hadn’t taken notes. He was convinced that Ted White was guilty.
The process took several hours, and when it was finished, Smith took another vote. Several jurors had changed their minds, and the tally was 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal. Cannavan was the holdout. Other jurors say they asked him to explain his decision. “He kept saying, ‘I just think he’s guilty,'” Priddle remembers.
Many of the jurors said that, because prosecutors had no physical evidence, their entire case rested on Jami’s testimony. The jurors returned to what Jami had said each time she claimed to have been abused: her videotaped interview with the Child Protection Center, her interview with Speck, her testimony in the 1999 trial and her current testimony. Jami’s story had changed many times.
For instance, Jami said that when she was 10, Ted White had used a beaded lotion and had tried to penetrate her in Ted and Tina’s bedroom. In her interview with officer Bledsoe, Jami said her father never had or attempted to have intercourse with her. In her interview with Speck, she said Ted White had put his penis inside her for 1 minute. During the 2004 trial, she said Ted White had tried to put his penis in her but had stopped when she cried. When they charted other incidents, jurors found similar variations in her testimony.
“That in itself, to me, made it hard to believe her — she added things and changed things,” juror Sarah Mehl, a Kansas City mother of three, tells the Pitch.
To some jurors, certain events that Jami described were not plausible. Jami testified that during the winter of 1997, her father had rented a limousine to take the family to FAO Schwarz on the Plaza and to dinner at Skies restaurant. Jami said that, while her mother and brother were sitting across from them, facing them, Ted White had placed his wife’s fur coat over himself and Jami and reached down her pants and “fingered” her without the rest of the family noticing anything unusual.
“I just don’t think a 12-year-old girl could hide that from her mom to where her mom wouldn’t know anything was going on,” Priddle says.
Other details bothered the jurors, too. Priddle points out that Jami wore braces during the time her father was supposed to be forcing her to give him “blow jobs,” which didn’t seem right. “A 10-year-old with braces? I don’t think he’d want her to do it a second time,” Priddle says.
Timelines didn’t match, either. Jami claimed one incident of abuse had happened right after she got home from school on the day her mother was in the hospital for “tummy tuck” surgery; Jami claimed that her father was interrupted by a phone call from her mother, which Danny answered. Yet hospital records showed that Tina White was under anesthesia until almost 9 p.m. that day. And in court, Danny didn’t remember answering such a phone call.
Moreover, many jurors didn’t believe that on March 8, 1998, Ted White, in business meetings until the afternoon and then in a rush to get to the airport before a snowstorm grounded flights, would take the time to stick his head underneath an afghan to give his daughter oral sex for 10 minutes in front of her 2-year-old brother, who was watching Peter Pan on TV.
But jurors say Cannavan told them he believed Jami White’s testimony and that he thought the defense witnesses were lying.
On the afternoon of the first day of deliberations, foreman Smith followed Cannavan into the storage room where Cannavan took smoke breaks. They talked for about 2 hours, jurors say. Then Priddle talked to Cannavan.
“I begged him, just give me one reason why you think he’s guilty,” Priddle says.
Other jurors say that Cannavan got so angry at them that he began yelling, getting out of his chair, pacing the floor and cursing at them. Sometimes he stormed away from deliberations to go to the smoking room.
Cannavan, a 52-year-old press operator from Independence, told the other jurors that he had dealt with people like them his whole life, other jurors say. “He kept saying, ‘You all think you’re smarter than me,'” says Josephine Hawk, an Italian-born grandmother in her sixties. “I told him, ‘I’m not any smarter than you. I’m just a plain housewife.'”
The next day, the 11 jurors talked to Cannavan about reasonable doubt. Several jurors say he admitted he had reasonable doubt of White’s guilt. Some jurors explained to Cannavan that the law says a juror who has reasonable doubt must vote not guilty, but Cannavan reportedly just got angry. They considered sending a note to the judge to complain that one of the jurors was not following the law, but the diplomatic Smith refused.
“I kept telling Larry to tell them that we had a juror up here who was ignoring the instructions of the court. … He would not send it down. I said, ‘He needs to know what’s going on up here,'” says Milanez Harrison, a 30-year-old bank employee who lives in midtown.
By the afternoon of the second day, the jury decided to send the judge a note saying they could not reach a unanimous decision. Atwell told them to keep trying. At one point, 27-year-old Jamie Holman, who works in human resources for a company in Overland Park, says she followed Cannavan into the storage room and talked to him while he smoked. She says he told her that he could read faces and he knew Ted White was guilty.
Later, back in the jury room, she got mad and snapped at Cannavan. “I said, ‘Mike, maybe you should just admit to everyone here that you think you can read faces and you think Ted has a child-molester-looking face,'” she recalls. Jurors recall that Cannavan rose and leaned toward her, saying, “I hope you have a little girl one day, and I hope she gets molested by someone like Ted White.”
By the end of the third day, several of the jurors say, they were so upset that they couldn’t even look at Cannavan anymore. Priddle says he felt he had failed. Others felt the system had failed, allowing 11 reasonable people to be thwarted by a single unreasonable one.
They again sent a note to Atwell that they were deadlocked. He declared a mistrial.
Cannavan did not respond to several attempts by the Pitch to contact him. Regardless of what might have motivated him, defense attorney Short classifies Cannavan’s behavior as a freak occurrence, an aberration that resulted in an unfair outcome for Ted White. “Usually, the system works,” Short tells the Pitch. “You couldn’t anticipate something like this happening.”
Several jurors told Short that they felt they had to do something to help Ted White. “They don’t feel their service is over until Ted is freed,” Short tells the Pitch. “That is enormously unusual.”
According to the spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, Ted White, now 42, will go on trial again in January 2005. If he wins, he’ll be set free. He says he would like to spend time with his mother, father and brother, who have mortgaged their home a second time to help pay for his defense. If he’s found guilty, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
White’s attorneys are still trying to decide whether their client should talk to reporters. Earlier this summer, 48 Hours sent a camera crew to Missouri to conduct interviews with people who know White. For now, White’s only statement has been a videotaped one taken by his lawyers. In it, White talks about the pain he’s been through and the difficulty of enduring “false allegations” from a daughter he loved.
“We believed in the justice system — we being my family and I — and we trusted in the beginning that the truth would prevail,” White said on the tape. “We were very naïve, we were too trusting, and we were wrong.”