In Travis County, legal sophistry and crackpot testimony sent two day-care owners to prison for 21 years
Originally published at The American Thinker blog
By David Paulin
Ronnie Earle's problematic record as Travis County District Attorney is coming back to haunt him – yet again. Earle, a Democrat, made a name for himself with some cleaver legal sophistry: specifically, he convinced a gullible jury in liberal Travis County, Texas, that former Republican House Speaker Tom DeLay was guilty of “money laundering” related to his funneling of campaign contributions to Republican candidates. A Texas Appeals Court recently dismissed the charges, ruling DeLay had broken no laws. Delay had called the prosecution the criminalization of politics.
Now, another case overseen by Earle in the liberal enclave of Travis County has come back to haunt the flamboyant district attorney. It concerns the case of Fran and Dan Keller, former day-care owners in Austin whom prosecutors claimed had engaged in outrageous satanic rituals and sexual abuse with the children entrusted to their care. The married couple had always maintained their innocence. On Tuesday, Mrs. Keller, 63, was released after 21 years in prison when the case against her fell apart. Her husband Dan, who turns 72 on Friday, is expected to be released within days, said defense lawyer Keith Hampton. Both were serving 48 years sentences.
The case, like California's Martin preschool trial and others, was part of a national hysteria over alleged sexual abuse with Satanic overtones in the 1980s and early 1990s. Psychologists and therapists were subsequently criticized for having implanted the bizarre allegations into the minds of children.
“For those who believed in the prevalence of ritual abuse, the allegations were powerful proof that secret societies and dangerous cults — often protected by top politicians, business leaders and law officers — engaged in depraved attacks on children who could be dominated and indoctrinated through pain, humiliation and terror,” observed the Austin American-Statesman. In this sense, the arguments of prosecutors were not dissimilar from left-wing conspiracy theories that have gained currency in recent years -- from crackpot storylines from Hollywood regarding the JFK assassination to claims that President George W. Bush dynamited the levies in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in order to clear blacks out of the city.
The sensational trial must have been a rollicking good time for the publicity-hungry Ronnie Earle. As the Statesman explained:
The case began Aug. 15, 1991, when a 3-year-old girl told her mother that Dan Keller had hurt her. The mother and daughter were on their way to a scheduled appointment with the girl’s therapist, who drew out details that included Keller defecating on her head and sexually assaulting her with a pen. In the following weeks, two other children from the day care offered similar accusations.
By the time of the Kellers’ six-day trial in November 1992, the list of atrocities had grown.
According to the children, the couple served blood-laced Kool-Aid and forced them to have videotaped sex with adults and other children. The Kellers, they said, sometimes wore white robes and lit candles before hurting them.
The children also accused the Kellers of forcing them to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs and a crying baby. Bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes dug to hide freshly killed animals and, once, an adult passer-by who was shot and dismembered with a chain saw. The children recalled several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day care.
As for physical evidence, there was damning testimony from Dr. Michael Mouw, an emergency room physician, who'd examined the 3-year-old girl on the night she'd first accused Dan Keller of sexual abuse. He “found two tears in the girl’s hymen consistent with sexual abuse and determined that the injuries were less than 24 hours old,” noted the Statesman. But during a hearing on the Kellers' appeal last August, Dr. Mouw said he'd changed his mind – all due to an epiphany he'd had while attending a medical seminar years after the trial. “Mouw said a slide presentation on 'normal' pediatric hymens included a photo that was identical to what he had observed in the girl,” the Statesman said.
“Sometimes it takes time to figure out what y'ou don’t know. I was mistaken,” the physician admitted.
Hampton, the defense lawer, told the Associated Press: "He testified extensively to his mistake and there is now no physical evidence that anything happened to these children."
Hampton also criticized the testimony of clinical psychologist Randy Noblitt, who he described as a crackpot and charlatan.
“A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt and render justice accordingly,” Hampton argued in his appeal. He has vowed to work to completely exonerate the Kellers.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg -- who helped to prosecute Tom DeLay and has vowed to pursue charges against him – issued a statement saying that the Kellers would be released because of Dr. Mouw's testimony.
"I agreed that there is a reasonable likelihood that his false testimony affected the judgment of the jury," said Lehmberg, who has recently been in the news due to a drunk-driven conviction for which she served jail time. "The Court of Criminal Appeals will review both cases. No further action or decisions on the case will be made until that review is finalized," she said.
The sensational turn-of-events comes on the heels of another miscarriage of justice in the area that sent Michael Morton to jail for 25 years for killing his wife. He was innocent, as DNA evidence revealed a number of months ago. Judge Ken Anderson in nearby Williamson County, who's prosecuted Morton as district attorney, recently gave up his law license and served a stint in jail – part of a plea bargain for having withheld evidence during the trial. Morton was subsequently exonerated, and DNA evidence linked another man to the murder of his wife and another woman, Debra Masters Baker.
Ronnie Earl has yet to make a public comment about the Kellers release, but the disgrace over this and the Tom DeLay prosecution will serve as a black mark on his career.