The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Keller Case – A Wrong Put Right, but Too Late and Insufficiently

Events on today’s campuses are just the latest reminder of how dangerous it can be when some new mania fuses with the seemingly perpetual urge to persecute.

Perhaps the worst example of this in recent years—at least in the US—was the panic in the 1980s/early 1990s over the alleged  sexual abuse of children at day-care centers, abuse that was often claimed to have ritualistic, even Satanic characteristics. The reasons for this wave of hysteria are complicated, but the injustice that it all too often led to was not. And it was an injustice made all the worse by the obvious absurdity of much of what was said about the defendants.  No matter:  A combination of junk psychiatry (there’s a related discussion to be had about ‘recovered memory’ syndrome) and prosecutorial  ambition kept these cases grinding on.

So now we come to Dan and Fran Keller.

The Washington Post :

The Kellers had been convicted of sexual assault in 1992. Children from their day-care center accused them — variously — of serving blood-laced Kool Aid; wearing white robes; cutting the heart out of a baby; flying children to Mexico to be raped by soldiers; using Satan’s arm as a paintbrush; burying children alive with animals; throwing them in a swimming pool with sharks; shooting them; and resurrecting them after they had been shot….

They served nearly 22 years in prison before a court released them in 2013, after years of work by journalists and lawyers to expose what proved to be a baseless case against them.

And only now — when Fran Keller is 67 and Dan is 75 — has the couple been fully exonerated. Their 1992 case was finally dismissed in June after a district attorney declared them innocent.

This week, the Austin American-Statesman reported, they were awarded $3.4 million from a state fund — a belated attempt to refund a quarter-century that they lost to the delusions of other people.

…What began as a single accusation from a 3-year-old girl with known behavioral problems, Texas Monthly wrote, “escalated to monstrous proportions” after authorities closed the day care.Worried parents sent their children to therapists, where they came back with tales pulled straight from horror movies. At one point in the investigation, the Statesman wrote, police had a suspect list of “26 ritual abusers, including many of the Kellers’ neighbors and a respected Austin police captain.”

As an appeals court judges recounted decades later, one girl claimed that Dan Keller “had come to her house and had cut her dog’s vagina with a chain saw 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 chain saw while all the children helped.”

…the Kellers were convicted after a six-day trial in 1992.

Not of chainsawing a dog’s vagina, of course — but of aggravated sexual assault based on the word of children and police, and a single piece of physical evidence: an apparent wound on a girl’s vagina.

That, too, would turn out to be wrong — but not before the Kellers stood in a Travis County courthouse and heard their sentences read aloud: 48 years each. “You prayed a lot,” Fran Keller told KXAN, remembering when the whole world seemed to believe she and her husband were monsters……She was sent to a women’s prison near Marlin, where she became a target because of the allegations that she had abused children. She spent her time dodging boiling water and learning about shanks, she told the station.

Then, in 2009, the Austin Chronicle wrote an article called “Believing the Children” — 10,000 words that tore apart what aspects of the Keller’s case had not sounded wholly fantastical to begin with. An emergency room doctor who had testified of wounds on a little girl’s vagina had since reconsidered after learning more about female anatomy. He told the Chronicle reporter, “I’ll be straight-up honest with you, I could’ve been wrong.”

State troopers had once flown over a cemetery, investigating claims that the Kellers took children there to dig up a grave. Evidence at the trial showed the earth had indeed been disturbed.

But a cemetery worker told the Chronicle that the coffin in that particular grave kept sinking, and the occupant’s son regularly came by and threw more dirt on it. Thus the disturbance. Moreover, the Chronicle reported, police had known this but it had not been mentioned in the trial. The article has many such examples of evidence that didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Austin lawyer Keith Hampton read the Chronicle’s story and thought, “Oh, dear God,” he later recalled to Texas Monthly. Thereafter, Hampton began working for free to overturn the Kellers’ conviction.

They appealed the case in 2013, according to the Statesman. The doctor’s testimony proved crucial. Hampton put him under oath, and he said in no uncertain terms: “I was mistaken.” That November, around Dan Keller’s 72nd birthday, both he and his wife walked free on bond while an appeals court considered a permanent reversal. The couple had not seen each other in more than two decades. “My heart lit up,” Dan Keller told KXAN a few months later.

But officially, they were still sex predators — always looking over their shoulders, accused by many people of horrible things.

…The next year, an appeals court unanimously overturned the Kellers’ convictions based on false testimony.

“This was a witch hunt from the beginning,” one judge wrote, comparing the case to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, in which she wrote nearly two dozen people were hanged before Massachusetts reversed the convictions.

But without explaining why, the appeals court declined one of the Kellers’ central requests: refusing to declare them innocent in 2015. Several children who originally accused the couple still oppose their release, the Statesman reported.

The Kellers kept pushing for public redemption. They were finally declared “actually innocent” by the Travis County district attorney in June, the newspaper wrote. That made them eligible for a state program that pays wrongfully convicted people $80,000 for each year they spent in prison — a very large cumulative sum, in the Kellers’ extraordinary case.

…The Kellers were expected to pick up a check for $3.4 million this week — though maybe millions isn’t so much when stretched across two decades and the darkest fantasies of children.


There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. $1.7million apiece for over two decades of hell unleashed (for all practical purposes) by legal authorities who should have known better seems very little indeed.

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