The state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday threw out the 1992 sexual assault convictions against Dan and Fran Keller but declined to find the former Austin day care owners innocent of crimes linked to a now-discredited belief that secret satanic cults were abusing day care children nationwide.
The Kellers spent more than 22 years in prison after three young children accused them of dismembering babies, torturing pets, desecrating corpses, videotaping orgies and serving blood-laced Kool-Aid in satanic rituals at their home-based day care.
No evidence of such activities was ever found.
Freed from prison in late 2013 as the case against them crumbled, the Kellers asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to declare them innocent, arguing that they were the victims of inept therapists, shoddy police work and “satanic panic” that swept the nation in the early 1990s.
A unanimous Court of Criminal Appeals instead overturned their convictions based on false testimony by an emergency room doctor whose hospital examination had provided the only physical evidence of sexual assault during the Kellers’ joint trial.
Dr. Michael Mouw later admitted that inexperience led him to misidentify normally occurring conditions as evidence of sexual abuse in a 3-year-old girl.
The nine judges did not provide an explanation for why they rejected the Kellers’ innocence claim except to say their decision was based on the findings of the trial judge “and this court’s independent review of the record.”
The panic actually began in the 1980s. It was instigated and perpetuated mostly by groups of fundamentalist Christians who saw Satan in every heavy metal album, “Smurfs” episode, and Dungeons & Dragons game, along with a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis. What they did instead was shed some light on just how potent the power of suggestion can be. Remarkably, children were convinced to testify about horrifying — and entirely fictional — violations perpetrated on them by care workers and, in some cases, by their own parents.
But it wasn’t just children. As the Kellers’ conviction shows, the panic was so overwhelming, it could convince trained medical professionals to see abuse where there was none. Some defendants were convicted of gruesome crimes such as the aforementioned dismembering of babies despite the fact that there were no corpses and no babies missing from the immediate area.
Ultimately, the panic and power of suggestion was pervasive enough to dupe our entire criminal justice system, as dozens of innocent people were sent to prison for crimes for which there was no evidence other than the coerced testimony of kids, and for which those same defendants would later be exonerated. Here’s an excerpt from the concurring opinion of Judge Cheryl Johnson, who would have declared the couple innocent.
This was a witch hunt from the beginning. The allegations in the indictment were based on the testimony of a three-year-old child who, even before she sporadically attended the applicant’s day-care facility, was in therapy for numerous psychological and behavioral issues. In accusing applicant, she asserted that applicant had come to her house and had cut her dog’s vagina with a chainsaw until it bled, that she was taken to a cemetery, where, after a person dressed like a policeman threw a person in a hole, Daniel Keller shot the person who had been thrown into the hole and cut up the body with a chainsaw while all the children helped, and that she had been put into a swimming pool with sharks that ate babies. She also alleged that applicant served blood-laced Kool-Aid, forced the children to have videotaped sex with adults and other children, sometimes wore white robes and lit candles before hurting the children, and forced the children to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs, and a crying baby. According to the complainant, bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes were dug to hide freshly killed animals, an adult passer-by was shot and dismembered with a chain saw, Frances Keller cut off the finger of a gorilla at Zilker Park, and applicant had performed a satanic bone-replacing ritual on one child. And the children were taken on several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day-care facility. In spite of such fantastical claims, which should have produced total incredulity in the police investigators and prosecutors, charges were filed.
And here’s the “expert” who sealed the Kellers’ conviction:
The state presented a witness, Randy Noblitt, who claimed to be an expert on satanic cults and rituals and who testified that the complainant had described such rituals. Applicant’s brief on appeal noted that Noblitt had parlayed his testimony into a business opportunity, giving lectures and writing a book on the evils of ritual abuse, and that pointed to “a Noblitt-sponsored 1995 conference as providing an eye-opening look into his world view.” That conference included speakers who “revealed” the FBI’s cover-up of a satanic cult in Nebraska that had White House ties, the existence of more than 500 satanic cults conducting eight sacrificial murders a year in New York City, and that then-President Bill Clinton was the anti-Christ.
That the highest court in Texas still can’t bring itself to declare the couple innocent, in spite of all that we know now, shows just how difficult it can be to undo the damage caused by a moral panic and junk science in the courtroom.
This didn’t just go on in Texas. It was all over the country, from conservative, law-and-order spots such as Kern County, Calif., to liberal strongholds such as Middlesex County, Mass. One of the best treatments of the panic is the movie “Witch Hunt,” which focuses on Kern County, arguable the epicenter of the panic. Here’s a trailer:
The entire movie is now available online. See the end of this post.
Here’s an observation from the panic that I don’t think has been fully explored: These kids didn’t make up these stories. In this case and dozens of others, the kids were telling tales with details about geography, history and current events about which kids of their age couldn’t have known. That’s likely what made their stories seem somewhat credible. But the fact that it all was fictitious reveals a particularly unsettling truth: These sick, lurid, unimaginable abuses could only have been a product of the imaginations of the therapists, social workers, cops and/or prosecutors who interviewed the children. If the memories were implanted, those are the only people who could have implanted them. That means that the same people entrusted to protect these kids, and in whom these communities trusted to police the streets, prosecute crimes and administer therapy, were ultimately the ones capable of dreaming up detailed sexual fantasies that put children in bizarre rituals involving violence, animals, corpses and so on.
There’s a lot to be learned from these cases. For one, there are lessons about professional accountability: Not only were the vast majority of the prosecutors who put these innocent people in prison in these cases never sanctioned, but also most went on to great professional success, sometimes because of their role in these high-profile cases, and sometimes even after it was widely known that the people they prosecuted were innocent. There are other lessons here about how we screen “expert” witnesses, and how bad science gets into the courtroom. There are lessons about the power of suggestion that could be applied to eyewitness testimony and how we conduct police lineups.
But the drawing of lessons is something we typically do once a crisis is over. This one still isn’t. There are still people in prison awaiting exoneration in these cases.