Criminal Justice

Convictions are tossed in satanic day-care case; concurrence decries 'witch hunt' prosecution

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Austin day care providers who say a satanic panic put them in prison for more than 22 years won reversals of their convictions Wednesday in a decision that fell short of the full exoneration they were seeking.

Texas’ top criminal court tossed the 1992 aggravated sexual assault convictions of Dan and Fran Keller, who were accused by a 3-year-old girl of wielding chain saws to cut up bodies and animals; serving blood-laced Kool-Aid; forcing the child into a swimming pool with baby-eating sharks; and videotaping sex with children, according to a concurrence that would have gone further and declared the couple actually innocent. The Austin American Statesman and KXAN have stories.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the convictions because a doctor who testified about indications of sexual abuse in the 3-year-old girl recanted his testimony. According to the court’s per curiam opinions (here and here), the doctor has since concluded that indications of what he believed to be sexual trauma were actually normal variations in anatomy.

The court declined, however, to grant the couple’s bid for a declaration of actual innocence, saying its decision was based on the trial court’s findings and its own independent review of the record.

Concurring Judge Cheryl Johnson said she would have found the couple innocent. “This was a witch hunt from the beginning,” Johnson wrote (here and here). The 3-year-old’s “bizarre accusations were supported at trial by the testimony of a 6-year-old who insisted that his teddy bear was alive and could talk” and by a satanic expert who sponsored a 1995 conference where some unusual claims were made, Johnson said.

Conference speakers claimed the FBI had covered up a satanic cult with White House ties and that then-President Bill Clinton was the Antichrist, Johnson said.

See also:

ABA Journal (1987): “Are the Children Lying?”

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