In late July of 1967 I received a telephone call from Denison Ray, an attorney practicing Civil Rights Law in Mississippi, asking for my help in one of his cases. He was head of the Jackson Mississippi office of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law but he was also a resident of Baldwin, Long Island. He had been retained by Maurice McNeill, an African-American school teacher in Baldwin, who was being accused of molesting a female student. He was being charged with conduct unbecoming a teacher and with immoral character. Though Ray had been retained by McNeill, his work in Mississippi prevented him from preparing the case for an imminent administrative hearing so he was asking me to do the preparatory work and to conduct at least part of the hearing on behalf of McNeill. Ray was doing the work pro bono and imagined I would have to do so as well. He said he knew McNeill and had confidence in his innocence.
I met with Maurice McNeill in my office and we went over the matter. He was 35 years old, had taught biology in Baldwin High School since 1959 with absolutely positive recommendations and references. He and his wife, who taught English in the Uniondale School District, had both originally come from North Carolina. They had a son and daughter who were attending the Baldwin Schools. Mr. McNeill had been accused of molesting a female student in his biology class, by touching her on the legs, knees, and breasts, and by embracing and kissing her. Susan, about 16 years of age, was a fairly good-looking, not particularly developed, bleach blond with a good academic background. Before getting a C+ from Mr. McNeill, she had never received less than a B. On August 9, 1967, the School Board issued charges against McNeill: immoral character and conduct unbecoming of a teacher.
The statement of charges was signed by the Superintendant of the Baldwin schools. He seemed to fit a phrase I’d once heard, as having a “silver fork up his ass.” He appeared to be a rigid guy who would always do what was expected of him and never anything controversial in his life. Ironically, soon after this whole McNeill matter, he left his wife and ran off with one of the subordinate clerical women working for him. It just goes to show you can never be sure about anybody.
Today the statutes on the procedures for disciplining a tenured teacher are set forth in great detail but at the time no procedures were in place at all. Who was to be the prosecutor? How was he to be selected? If the district used its general counsel as its prosecutor, could he continue giving so-called “neutral” advice to the board? Who was to judge the case? There was no end to the questions. And, keep in mind, this was not a criminal prosecution but only an administrative process to see whether any disciplinary action was appropriate.
The Baldwin School Board attorney played the role of prosecutor even before the charges were drawn up and he was absolutely partisan. In typical racist fashion, he told McNeill that if he resigned quietly, they would give him letters of recommendation and help him get another job. It was even suggested that Mr. McNeill get a job in the predominantly black Amityville School District where he might feel “more comfortable.” When McNeill had contacted the lawyer who had represented him when he had bought his house, that lawyer also recommended he resign and go to a predominantly black school district.
I tried to learn as much about the School Board as I could. One of the members of the board’s husband worked for CBS and she was most concerned that there be as little adverse publicity as possible so she went out of her way to try to prevent CBS and other media from covering the story. The Vice President of the School Board was generally viewed as a right-wing extremist so we worried that in a case with a white complainant and a black respondent he would automatically believe in the guilt of the black person. As it turned out, in fact, he wound up being the only one on the Board who voted for the guilt of my client. Another member of the Board was a psychology professor from Brooklyn College, Dr. Hamburg, who, though born and raised Jewish, was a member of the Ethical Culture Society. He played a most interesting role in eventually disposing of this matter. I was in constant touch with Denny Ray, who, contrary to what others had said about how difficult he was to work with, I found brilliant and very thorough, albeit highly competitive. He was very devoted to this client and I believe Mr. McNeill made a good judgment in retaining him; I’d like to think Ray made an equally good judgment in making me his co-counsel.
McNeill took this case to heart. He was losing a lot of weight but despite his almost uncontrolled anxiety he stood up for his defense and was just a wonderful client to represent. One of the most beautiful aspects of this case was the response of the student body which rallied en masse in support of their teacher. They saw him as a caring, helpful, devoted teacher and with the students’ support, the parents and the faculty followed. More than a hundred statements were taken from community members, students, faculty, and others, attesting to their positive experiences with Mr. McNeill and their feeling that there was no way he could be guilty of these charges. But on the other side was a small minority out for blood. These people, John Birch types, teamed up with the local newspaper, The South Shore Reporter, and they even went after my wife. Now, there’s no one less threatening than Chelly. She has her firm points of view but, far from intimidating, she is always pleasant and understanding. At the time she wore a pair of glasses with white frames and these Birch-type bastards referred to her as “the witch with white glasses.” Their hostility toward her made about as much sense as their hostility toward McNeill because he was black.
Our investigation revealed that the complainant was obsessed with McNeill. Although she testified that she had no adverse feelings towards him before this incident, we had witnesses who said she had hated him, that when he had once touched her shoulder (before the incident at issue here), she had been revulsed by him. McNeill had a reputation for touching many people’s shoulders; he was a “touchy, feely” sort of guy and no one thought the worse of it or had ever told him not to do so. It was just the way he was. Many students gave us statements about the complainant’s reputation or what they knew about her. They said she was a “hood” and hung around with “the hoods.” They said she was “loose” and “easy.” There was even talk about her having sex in the balcony of the Grand Avenue movie theater in Baldwin. On the other hand, we felt she had been a good student. However, we felt that because of her racist feelings and the racist environment, she had concocted the “cock and bull” story of the alleged molestation.
There was so much intense interest in this case that the hearing had to be moved from a lecture room to the Baldwin High School auditorium. It was in our client’s interest to have his hearing as open as possible and, in fact, it became the thing to do to attend the McNeill hearing. People would ask me to help them get in, sometimes asking me to claim they were on the McNeill defense staff. I felt like I was in charge of ticket distribution for the best play on Broadway. In conducting the hearing, the Board didn’t really know what it was doing and some of the advice it received seemed simply goofy. They had selected a lawyer by the name of Lowe to be the “impartial” advisor to the Board as well as a prosecutor. He was head of the Republican Party of Baldwin and although he specialized in criminal law, I believe he seldom tried a case. Most of the local judges were Republican and this didn’t hurt him in his practice. We were very lucky he was selected as the prosecutor because I don’t think he did much preparation and basically tried to “wing it.” Ultimately, this wound up being his big mistake. Susan retained her own lawyer, a long-time lawyer in Nassau County with his office on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook. Though I had seen him around the courtrooms occasionally, I knew very little about him. I don’t think he was even a criminal lawyer.
Under the civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the burden was on the prosecutor to prove the complainant’s case; this is distinct from the burden in a criminal case where the case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, there was a much lesser burden of proof for the administrative prosecution. Moreover, if McNeill was acquitted in this procedure, he could still be subject to criminal prosecution. I found it odd, both personally and professionally, that an untutored board was proceeding against my client in a matter that one would expect to be handled in the criminal courts. If McNeill did what the complainant claimed, then it should have been prosecuted as a sexual offense in the Nassau County District Court. What could the attorney for the School Board have been thinking when he didn’t steer the complainant in that direction? Or did he in fact do that and then find that the District Attorney wouldn’t take the case? If it had been referred to the DA, that would have gotten the Board off the hook and whatever publicity there was wouldn’t have involved the School Board. None of these questions were ever answered nor would they be resolved.
At the time this case was being processed, the movie “To Sir With Love” was in the theaters. Sidney Poitier played a black schoolteacher in England and the film was about his relationship with his students and how they felt about him, including sexually. The complainant said she never saw the film but one of her closest friends, Stephanie, said they saw the movie together. My client was a very attractive man and we began to believe that the complainant was having sexual feelings about McNeill, feelings McNeill was unaware of. Imagine being attracted to someone and at the same time hating him because of a bad grade and because of the color of his skin.
One particular witness in this case proved pivotal. Glenn, a fellow student at Baldwin High School, testified for the prosecution. He stated that on the day in question he saw Susan on the school grounds crying and when he’d asked her why she was crying, she had recounted the tale about McNeill essentially molesting her in the school. Glenn claimed he walked Susan home and had every reason to believe she was telling the truth. If her attorney had done his homework, he would have been reticent to use this witness. It seems to me that one of the first questions to ask a potential witness is whether he gave anyone a statement, written or otherwise. But he seemed to be just going through the motions and obviously didn’t know that Glenn had given me a statement, a statement contradicting what he had just testified to.
I asked Glenn if he remembered me, and he said yes. I asked him if he had been told that I was Mr. McNeill’s lawyer, and he said yes. I asked him if in his statement to me he had intended to deceive me or whether he was telling the truth, and he said he told the truth. As my questioning and his testimony made clear, in that statement he had said that Susan had only told him that McNeill grabbed her and that she pushed him away and walked out. He said he walked Susan to the corner by which time she had stopped crying and that she had never added or said anything more about what McNeill had allegedly done to her. He also had said that Susan worried a lot about her grades and that he knew McNeill to be a good guy and couldn’t believe he would do any of the things he was being charged with. He had also directly said, “I don’t believe Susan’s story. I believe that Mr. McNeill is incapable of doing what she says.”
In his testimony, he said that Susan was never his girlfriend. However in his statement that he gave us, he said that she been his girlfriend in this past. This statement proved to be a bombshell, showing that Glenn had been lying on the witness stand in order to help Susan. The prosecution’s witnesses were gradually falling apart. When Glenn’s testimony was over, there was silence in the auditorium. Then Glenn looked at me angrily and put the forearm of his left arm in the middle of his right arm and bent his right arm upwards. We all know that means, “fuck you.” Inwardly laughing, I made believe I was aghast and told the Board that this was just awful. As if that wasn’t enough, the attorney for the complainant, who was sitting in the auditorium, got up and screamed, “fuck you, Dorfman.” For a minute I thought I was in an insane asylum.
Finally, after a few hearings, it was our turn to put on our case, if we wished to put on a case. Keep in mind that we had in excess of a hundred witnesses champing at the bit to testify, including a psychiatrist who had examined my client and given us a statement saying that he believed Mr. McNeill incapable of doing what he was charged with. In addition, we had retained the services of a prominent lie detector specialist who had found that in denying the charges my client had been telling the truth. The Board had been told that we had witnesses that were going to say all sorts of terrible things about the character and sexual activities of the complainant. So many witnesses were willing to testify about the “loose” behavior of the complainant that I began feeling bad about it. Even if all this was true about her, it was nobody’s business. However, she had opened this Pandora’s box by bringing these false charges against Mr. McNeill.
We put on a number of witnesses and things were going well; if I were the prosecutor I would have been shell-shocked. His case was going down the tubes and we were only beginning. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Professor Hamburg (from the Board) came over to me and said, quietly, “ginig,” “enough” in Yiddish. The implication was that we had already won our case and it was unnecessary to destroy the claimant, a young person with her whole life to live.
I went over to my client and told him what Hamburg had said. Mr. McNeill asked me what he should do and I said that there really was no clear answer; it was his choice. If we stopped then and there, we would probably win, but one could never be sure. I didn’t know much about Hamburg and didn’t know if we could take him at face value. Was he speaking only for himself or, acting in good faith, was he speaking for a majority of the School Board? McNeill weighed all the factors: proceed and “destroy” the complainant or have some degree of pity, stop right then and there, and take our chances? Denny Ray agreed that it was a decision only the client could make. Mr. McNeill decided to call a halt to the procedure.
Luckily, his “call” was a good one. On the charge of conduct unbecoming a teacher, the Board voting unanimously to acquit. On the charge of immoral character, the Board’s vote was four to one to acquit. The only dissent came from the Vice President of the Board who seemed to identify with the small group of John Birchers rallying for the prosecution only because the complainant was white and the respondent was black. I can’t tell you how joyous everybody was; the atmosphere was festive. Covered by the world media, the case was reported in the German Der Spiegel and the Jerusalem Post. It was on the front page in The Ladies Home Journal and on television all over the country. It had been an ongoing saga in the Long Island Press, Newsday, and The New York Times. The teacher’s union and the National Education Association affiliate even competed in taking some of the credit for the strong defense of this falsely-accused teacher: although we were handling this matter pro bono, they insisted on paying us. I don’t remember the details but I think I took just enough money to cover my disbursements, a paltry sum. I would be surprised if I was paid more than $250 in this matter.
Interestingly, when I had first approached the leaders of black organizations for their support at the beginning of this case, they had hesitated. Mr. McNeill led a very “white” life: his kids went to white schools (Baldwin was essentially a lily-white community at the time); he liked to play golf and tennis; he owned a modest vacation house. Black leaders didn’t want to identify with a black person who they felt acted too “white.” I argued that his way of life was his business and not theirs and that the issue was bigger than him. He was another example of a black man singled out for wrongful and vicious treatment because of his race. Because of my arguments and because of my standing within the civil rights community, the movement did come to his defense and proved quite helpful.
Though Mr. McNeill went back to teaching at Baldwin High School, he felt he couldn’t stay there for the rest of his career because he couldn’t forget what had happened to him. He went on to become a principal in the Amityville School District and then in Roosevelt High School. He went back to school and got his doctorate in education; I believe his last job was as a superintendent of schools in Queens, New York.
I considered the McNeills dear friends and, although we didn’t keep in regular contact, I knew that they would be there for me if I ever needed them and vice versa. Maurice has since died but I will never forget the McNeill case and the community support expressed at the time. Neighbors were constantly bringing prepared meals to the McNeill home so they could concentrate on the proceedings. When people are kind to each other, everyone benefits. Years later when I was going through difficult times, memories of such experiences as that with the McNeills gave me a lot of strength and feelings of fulfillment.
Denny Ray worked with the Civil Rights movement for quite some time but we did not keep in contact. He eventually came back to New York and I believe was with some law services type of firm that did pro bono legal work for indigent persons in civil matters. He must have made a good name for himself because the New York State Bar Association gives out an annual award in his memory. He was a fine person as well as a fine attorney. My client was well-served by him as I hope he was well-served by me.
When my kids attended the schools in the Baldwin School District the teachers would whisper that they were the children of one of the lawyers for Maurice McNeill. And when one of my daughters refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance, she was not forced to do so, perhaps because they knew that, given who her father was, they would be looking for trouble. In any event, I think my involvement with the McNeill case made my kids feel special. All the kids in the Baldwin schools at the time knew about the case, as did the teachers. The administration, of course, will never forget.