January 7, 2014

Victims of 'Satanic Panic' Released From Prison After 21 Years

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasti...
Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar (Photo credit: Frank.Vassen)
I recognize that I have a fairly diverse readership here at Atheist Revolution, made up of people with quite a range of different life experiences. But I'd guess that it would be fairly safe of me to assume that most of my readers have not spent years of their lives in prison. There may be exceptions, but they are likely few in number. Spending years in prison is probably something most of us would have some trouble imagining. Thus, I suspect you will be able to relate when I say that the idea of spending 21 years of one's life in prison for a crime one never committed absolutely blows my mind.

In early December, The Guardian ran a story by Tom Dart about Dan and Fran Keller, a couple who was sent to prison in Texas back in 1991 for child sexual assault during the height of the "Satanic panic" in the U.S. They were released after serving 21 years of their original 48-year sentence because the district attorney's office finally admitted that the jury at their trial was likely influenced by flawed expert testimony. Imagine spending 21 years in prison for something you didn't do!

While I realize that the fact that the Kellers were released does not necessarily mean that they were innocent or that they did nothing wrong, the manner in which they were convicted leads me to suspect that this is more likely than not. But I should acknowledge that I am extremely skeptical of the recovered memory movement in the mental health profession and the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse that were common at the time. I personally witnessed some truly awful examples of well-meaning therapists abusing their power during the tail end of this era. Thus, the odds of me being able to look at a story like this in an objective manner are not terribly good. Still, the manner in which the allegations emerged in their case, starting with what sounded like physical and sexual abuse and rapidly escalating to include Satanic ritual murder, sounds all too familiar of the sort of modern Satanic witch hunts that were widespread in those days.

The Kellers were released after Dr. Michael Mouw, the expert who examined the 3-year-old girl they were convicted of abusing (who since recanted her allegations) and testified that she had been molested, came forward with an affidavit "in which he affirms that he now realizes his inexperience led him to a conclusion that 'is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken.'" If only it had not taken him so many years to come to this realization.
In an appeal filed on behalf of Fran Keller earlier this year, her lawyer, Keith Hampton, also argued that the state presented misleading evidence about the cemetery, relied on a false witness confession and the testimony of a "quack" satanic abuse "expert", and that suggestive interview techniques had encouraged the children to make "fantastical false statements".
The article goes on to provide many more disturbing examples of how the convictions were flawed in ways that will be immediately recognizable to those who remember this sad episode in our not too distant past.
In a letter of support for the Kellers dated March 17 this year, James Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, 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."
And perhaps this "general agreement" is the silver lining here. We might have learned something. At least, I think that some of us have learned something. Others, unfortunately, continue to hold the sort of beliefs which allowed this sort of panic to flourish and which could allow another one if we are not careful. Let this be another example of the dangers involved when unchecked delusion gains the power to enforce its agenda.

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