Beginning in 1991, Fran and Dan Keller, who ran a day care out of their Austin home, committed unspeakable acts against their charges — they put one in a swimming pool with a baby-eating shark; they forced the kids to watch as they dismembered an infant; they flew the children to Mexico, where they were raped by soldiers, before flying them back to the day care in time to be picked up by their parents.
Except, possibly, just maybe, perhaps, none of that ever happened. Incredibly, even though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday overturned the charges against Fran Keller because of "false evidence," the court denied her claims of actual innocence.
The Kellers were sentenced in 1992 to 48 years in prison after three children at their day care made outlandish allegations of ritualized torture, and an emergency room physician testified that the injuries to a three-year-old accuser's hymen were consistent with sexual abuse. The prosecution also presented "expert" witnesses — a therapist and psychologist — who testified to the prevalence of Satanic cults. (As reported in Slate, the Kellers' appellate attorney noted how the expert psychologist, Randy Noblitt, "was featured on ABC's Primetime, having a conversation with Satan who, Noblitt agreed, was actually a pretty nice guy, notwithstanding, of course, his role as the dark lord of evil.")
The Kellers were convicted just as the "Satanic panic" — a tide of accusations of ritualized sexual abuse often coinciding with "recovered memories" — was winding down. The Kellers' trial took place two years after the debacle of California's McMartin Preschool trial, the touchstone flagship Satanic panic case that should have put the nail in the coffin of this most unfortunate and embarrassing period of American jurisprudence. But, unfortunately for the Kellers, word hadn't reached Travis County prosecutors in time.
The Kellers appealed, and Fran was released on bond in 2013, at age 63. By that time, Michael Mouw, the physician who testified to the evidence of sexual abuse, had recanted, saying he was mistaken. And it's because of that that the Texas CCA finally tossed Fran's conviction. Not because of the complete lack of evidence of baby-eating sharks.
Judge Cheryl Johnson was apparently baffled by her colleagues' reasoning — she wrote in a concurring opinion that the court should go ahead and find Keller innocent. (We'd like to see Johnson's rough draft, which almost certainly had to include the phrase "Are y'all fuckin' nuts?")
"This was a witch hunt from the beginning," she wrote, before rattling off the list of the three-year-old accuser's stories: "...She asserted that [Keller] 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...She also alleged that [Keller] 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."
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Our favorite, though, might be the part where the child accused Keller of cutting off the finger of a gorilla at the Zilker Park zoo. Apparently, it was left up to Johnson to point out that there's no zoo in Zilker Park, "nor is there any evidence that a gorilla was ever there."
Johnson also noted how Noblitt "had parlayed his testimony into a business opportunity, giving lectures and writing a book on the evils of ritual abuse," and how he also sponsored a conference in which speakers "'revealed' the FBI's cover-up of a satanic cult in Nebraska that had White House ties... [and] the existence of more than 500 satanic cults conducting eight sacrificial murders a year in New York City."
Referring to the Mouw, the physician who recanted, Johnson wrote, "It was not just Dr. Mouw who was too quick to believe. If he is to be blamed for the failure to provide applicant with a fair trial, the missteps of other persons and entities need to be examined also. We do not learn from our mistakes unless and until we are required to acknowledge those mistakes."
We concur with Judge Johnson. That's something so true, even a nine-fingered gorilla could see.