An American teacher was jailed for child abuse in China in 2014. He still says he's innocent — if only anyone would listen.
Updated 8:59 PM ET, Tue June 8, 2021
Hong KongDavid McMahon hated the design of his classroom.
Located on the ground floor of the Pudong campus of the Shanghai French School, its almost floor-to-ceiling windows made him feel like he was "teaching in aquarium," in the words of one of McMahon's colleagues. Passersby couldn't help but look in, and their attention would inevitably distract the kindergarteners inside.
But when, in 2013, he was accused of abusing several of his students, the windows suddenly seemed to McMahon and his defenders a saving grace -- proof the claims being made against him could not have happened. How could he have molested multiple children over the course of months, his lawyers planned to ask in court, in full view of anyone walking through a heavily-trafficked area of the campus?
It was one of many strands of a defense that seemed relatively iron tight to McMahon and his fiancée Linnea, who said that while they were appalled and upset at the charges, they weren't overly worried, figuring the truth would come out at trial.
"At the beginning it just seemed like this couldn't possibly go any further, there wasn't enough evidence, like how could this happen?" said Linnea, who requested to be identified only by her first name in order to protect her privacy.
But when McMahon's case came to court, just one of McMahon's witnesses was allowed to testify, and she was only permitted to speak to his character. Almost all the evidence put forward by his lawyers was summarily dismissed, court documents show, demonstrative of the difficulties defense teams often have in the Chinese justice system, where around 99% of prosecutions end in a guilty verdict.
On July 2, 2014, McMahon was found guilty of child molestation and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
To this day, McMahon maintains he is innocent of all charges against him, despite what supporters say is ongoing pressure from the Chinese authorities to sign a confession, which could bring a reduction in his sentence and better treatment while in prison.
No physical or forensic evidence was ever presented to tie McMahon to the crime, with the case relying solely on the testimony of very young children. Claims that their testimony may have been flawed were dismissed by the court, as was the suggestion testimony may have been inappropriately influenced by parents or police.
CNN has interviewed over a dozen people involved in the case, including former colleagues of McMahon's and parents at the school where he taught, and reviewed Chinese and US court documents, witness statements, US State Department records, and communications sent by McMahon and his accusers ahead of the trial.
None of McMahon's accusers responded to requests for comment. In a statement, the Lycée Français de Shanghai said it had "no comment to make."
Prosecutors and police in Shanghai also did not respond. Previously, Chinese officials have stated that the country's "judicial authorities handle cases involving criminals of different nationalities in accordance with law" and that "every criminal is equal in the application of the law."
Since he was first arrested, McMahon's family and friends have attempted to get US officials and lawmakers to lobby on his behalf, with little success. Media coverage has been limited to a handful of stories around the time he was charged, largely repeating what was put out by Shanghai prosecutors.
Thanks to years of work behind the scenes, however, this has gradually begun to change. McMahon's case has recently been taken up by the James Foley Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Americans detained overseas.
In a statement to CNN, Executive Director Margaux Ewen said that "based on the evidence we've seen from many sources," including FBI agents and US State Department officials, the Foundation believes "David is innocent of the charges against him."
"We hope the United States government will be helpful in securing his release and repatriation home to the US," Ewen said.
Rob Saale, a former FBI Special Agent and director of the US Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, who sits on the Foley Foundation's advisory council, said that on examining the case "there were a number of factors that caused me to believe that David's conviction was suspect."
"What was most troubling was the process for the interviewing of the victims of the case," Saale said, adding that "some of the allegations seemed far fetched," and did not line up with other testimony or evidence.
One thing that everyone involved in the case agrees on is that there was a pedophile who abused two of McMahon's students.
Over a year before McMahon was arrested, in November 2012, the mother of two of his students, twin 5-year-old girls, had come into class very upset, describing how she had walked in on the girls' English tutor -- an American called Hector Orjuela, Jr. -- molesting one of them in the basement of the family home.
"It was shocking to all of us. The guy worked here two or three years ago. I knew him at work, but we didn't socialize outside of work. I didn't know him well, but he worked here for two years and a lot of people here remember him. Obviously, we had no idea he was a pedophile," McMahon emailed his friend and former colleague Hannah Miller, shortly after speaking to the twins' mother.
The woman had been angry at McMahon, believing he was a friend of Orjuela.
"She met the man while shopping and he mentioned that he used to work at the French School ... and that he knew me," McMahon wrote to Miller, who shared the email with CNN.
Interviewed by Chinese and US law enforcement, Orjuela confessed to having molested one of the twins and attempting to molest the other. During a search of his devices, police found large amounts of child pornography, including images which appeared to have been taken by Orjuela. He subsequently admitted to having abused a 7-year-old girl during a visit to Maryland in the summer of 2012.
Rather than prosecute Orjuela in Shanghai, the Chinese authorities chose to deport him to face trial in the US, where he was eventually convicted on multiple counts and sentenced to 30-years in prison.
The twins' mother traveled to the US to testify against Orjuela, telling the court, "there are times when I would like to go to sleep and never wake up again so that I no longer have to see the suffering and the pain in the eyes of my daughters."
McMahon was heartbroken for the girls, telling his colleague Roshni Ismail that "these kids went through such a tough time, they were so traumatized."
The French School is a $15,000-a-year private academy spread across two campuses in Shanghai.
McMahon had joined in 2008, four years after he arrived in China from Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, where he'd been a high school teacher. While the 32-year-old didn't volunteer for after school activities or extra work, he was adored by his students, according to two educators who worked alongside him.
"We used to tease him, because we would get off the bus and the kids would swarm around Dee, like a rockstar, trying to hug him," Ismail said, using his nickname.
This made him a natural person for the twins to turn to for comfort and protection, she added, with McMahon fulfilling the role of caregiver during school hours.
But seeing her girls being close with another American man, one whom Orjuela had given as a reference, appears to have given the twins' mother a deep sense of disquiet, and she would become suspicious of his motivations, her actions later show. Her concerns were echoed by the girls' psychologist, who emailed the headmaster of the French School, Eric Veteau, on April 10, 2013, to warn that the twins had grown "too intimate" with McMahon, who was playing "the role of the mother" with them.
Veteau called McMahon and his supervisor, Laurent Delattre, in for a meeting, and told him not to hug the girls, court documents state. According to a description of the meeting McMahon gave to his friend Miller, he replied angrily that he never initiated hugs, but it was difficult to refuse a five-year-old, especially when they had been through trauma.
Linnea, McMahon's then girlfriend and now wife, said he was left in a bind by the girls' obvious need for comfort. "In some ways, if a child tries to hug you and you push them away, that could be a lot more traumatic for them," she said.
Two days after the twins' psychologist emailed Veteau, Diplomatic Security Service agents at the US Consulate requested McMahon come in for an interview. He thought the agents, who wo