by Matt Clarke
An Austin, Texas couple wrongly convicted of sexually abusing a child at the day-care center they ran in the 1990s has been declared innocent and received over $3.4 million in compensation from the state.
Starting in the 1980s, the United States experienced an episode of mass hysteria now known as “Satanic Panic,” during which it was widely believed that Satanists had infiltrated the child-care industry and were sexually abusing children, brainwashing them and using them in satanic rituals. The first large-scale prosecution of alleged day care Satanists was the McMartin Preschool case in California. One of the last was that of Austin, Texas couple Dan and Frances “Fran” Keller, who both spent 21 years in prison.
The Kellers were convicted of sexually assaulting a three-year-old girl in 1992 and sentenced to 48 years. In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned their convictions because the physician who gave the only scientific evidence against them at trial realized he was mistaken.
During a 2013 hearing, emergency room doctor Michael Mouw testified he was wrong when he testified at the Kellers’ trial that tears he found in the girl’s hymen indicated sexual abuse. Years later, he attended a medical conference where he discovered that such tears were a normal variant of the female genitalia. He contacted the Austin Police Department but was rebuffed by a detective who told him the Kellers were guilty.
Mouw testified that his medical opinion had fundamentally changed. After the hearing, then-Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg agreed the Kellers had not received a fair trial. They were released on signature bonds later that year, but were not entitled to compensation under state law because they had not been exonerated. They also were at risk of being prosecuted again. Thus, they tried to rebuild their lives with a possible retrial on sexual abuse charges hanging over their heads.
Attorney Keith Hampton worked for years without pay to gain the Kellers’ release. Then he began working to clear their names. When a new district attorney, Margaret Moore, was elected, she set up a Conviction Integrity Unit. The Kellers became the unit’s first case.
On June 20, 2017, Moore filed documents in court stating there was “no credible evidence” the Kellers had committed a crime, and that she believed exoneration “to be a just outcome.” The court agreed and held they were innocent, and on August 22, 2017 they received the first of two checks that will total $3.4 million in compensation for spending over two decades in prison. The now-divorced couple will also receive the equivalent amount in an annuity with annual payments of $152,200 under Texas’ wrongful conviction compensation statute.
“It means we don’t have to worry about pinching pennies on Social Security, and late bills. It means we will actually be free. We can start living – and no more nightmares,” said Fran Keller, 67.
Her ex-husband, Dan Keller, 75, has a to-do list that includes buying a house, a vehicle and better hearing aids.
The Kellers’ ordeal began when a three-year-old girl who was an occasional drop-in at their home-based day-care center told her mother that Dan had spanked her “like daddy” used to, as they were driving to the child’s therapist. Under intense and suggestive questioning by her mother and the therapist, the story morphed into tales of rape and orgies involving children.
Other children questioned under similarly suggestive circumstances told fantastic tales of the Kellers sacrificing babies, dismembering animals, holding satanic ceremonies in a local cemetery, making children drink blood-laced Kool Aid and even flying them to Mexico to be sexually abused by military officers, yet returning in time for their parents to pick them up. Children who denied that such things happened were ignored.
In 2008, a reporter with the Austin Chronicle who was reinvestigating the case was stunned to learn that police and prosecutors still believed the outrageous allegations. The Austin Police Department resisted the reporter’s attempts to obtain investigative reports in the case. The reporter sued and won.
The investigative notes were “an ALL-CAPS, run-on-sentence fever dream of breathless accusations and absent any actual investigation that could prove or disprove the claims,” according to an article in The Intercept. Police investigators never questioned the three-year-old girl’s statements. The girl had recanted her claims in court and admitted she had no memories of the Kellers abusing her; nonetheless, they were convicted.
In a letter supporting the Kellers’ exoneration, University of Texas at El Paso psychology professor James Wood wrote: “There is now general agreement among reputable scholars that the Daycare Abuse Panic was a twentieth-century manifestation of ‘witchcraft fever’ of the same kind that swept Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and Western Europe in the centuries before that.”
Numerous other people who were prosecuted and convicted during the “Satanic Panic” have since had their convictions overturned and been released.
Sources: www.mystatesman.com, www.cbsnews.com, www.theintercept.com, www.theguardian.com
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