Friday, January 18, 2013

Fran Keller: Texas: Habeas writ challenges infamous Austin 'ritual abuse' case. Reporter Jordan Smith. Austin Chronicle.

STORY: "Appeal filed for Fran Keller: The Oak Hill Daycare 'ritual abuse' fiasco: Appeal cites outdated medical evidence and Brady violation,"  by reporter Jordan Smith, published in the Austin Chronicle on January 14, 2013.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This was a horrific chapter in recent American criminal justice history. The prosecution was tainted by fanaticism, hysteria, the blood lust of a witch hunt, and the stain of faulty medicine and questionable science. And Frances Keller has spent the last twenty years behind bars for this crime that never happened. Perfect grist for  this Blog's mill. We will follow developments closely.  Harold Levy. Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog.

GIST: "An appeal filed this morning in Travis County district court reopens an infamous chapter in Austin history and sets out to prove, once and for all, that former Oak Hill daycare operator Frances Keller was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and has spent the last 20 years behind bars for a crime that never even happened. Fran Keller was sentenced to 48 years in prison for allegedly sexually abusing a 3-year-old girl, Christy Chaviers, who'd been an infrequent drop-in at the home-based daycare center Keller and her husband Dan ran in 1991. (Dan was also convicted and sentenced to 48 years; the appeal filed this morning concerns only Fran Keller's conviction.) After a day at the Kellers in the summer of 1991, Christy told her mother, Suzanne Stratton, that Danny Keller had spanked her; that allegation quickly morphed into an allegation of sexual abuse. Before long, two other children who'd been in care at the Kellers, and whose parents had become friendly with Christy's mother, also claimed they were abused by the Kellers. By the fall, the allegations turned fantastical and Christy's therapist, Donna David Campbell, concluded that Christy had been a victim of "ritual abuse." Indeed, the Kellers were among hundreds of daycare worker across the country who in the Eighties and early Nineties were accused of being part of “satanic cults” that abused children placed in daycare. The most notorious case was that involving McMartin Preschool in California where daycare workers were charged with hundreds of counts of abuse in a criminal case that lasted more than a decade; the McMartin defendants were finally cleared of any wrongdoing. Although Christy ultimately testified in court that nothing bad ever happened to her at the Kellers, the state had several other pieces of evidence upon which to make its case: the testimony of a young emergency room doctor who examined Christy and opined that lacerations to her hymen appeared consistent with sexual abuse; testimony from Austin Police who said they'd used a helicopter armed with an infrared device to determine that graves in a small private cemetery had been disturbed – consistent with stories the children told about rituals the Kellers would perform there; and the opinion of Randy Noblitt, a Dallas psychologist with an alleged expertise in ritual abuse. According to an 108-page writ filed today by veteran Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton, those key pieces of evidence have now been discredited. Keller's wrongful conviction was based on "medical observations now repudiated, a recanting witnesses' false confession, child fantasies, a quack 'expert' in imaginary satanic ritual abuse, false evidence from the police … the suppression of exculpatory evidence, and an investigation virtually certain to result in false allegations of abuse by children," reads the appeal memorandum. Indeed, the faulty medical evidence – based on science that has evolved since 1991, when the alleged crime took place – and evidence that Austin Police withheld, not only from the defense but also from prosecutors, key evidence related to the graveyard, are issues that were first raised by the Chronicle in a reinvestigation of the Keller case, "Believing the Children," published on March 27, 2009.........Ultimately, Hampton argues that the advancements in medical science, the Brady violation, and Noblitt's "quackery" only recently exposed, undermine whatever confidence one might have ever had in Keller's conviction. "When viewed in its totality and with clarity of mind, the evidence and circumstances involved in the prosecution of Fran Keller leads to the conclusion that she is innocent and became the unfortunate magnet for the hysteria of her time," reads the writ. "The wrongful imprisonment of Fran Keller is the result of forces which arise only in somewhat unique social and psychological circumstances. A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt, and render justice accordingly."

The entire story  can be found at:

Austin Statesman story by reporter Chuck Lindell:

The actual  appeal document. PDF:  (Accompanying the Austin Statesman story):

Related Grits for Breakfast post: "Grits can vividly remember the breathless, circus-like media coverage of this case, which did indeed lead to a witch hunt atmosphere. Gary Cartwright of Texas Monthly was the first journalist to comprehensively question the Kellers' convictions, reporting in 1994 that "Much of what the children said – or, more accurately, what the parents reported they said – is either demonstrably false or inherently unbelievable." Though he could not know at the time of Noblitt's quackery, that the ER doctor would recant, nor of the exculpatory evidence about the gravesites allegedly withheld from the defense, Cartwright showed that the children's testimony was at a minimum fanciful and unreliable, encouraged by therapists and police touting dubious claims about the kids (one therapist insisted the central witness in the case had eight personalities) who had personal and professional stakes in promoting the meme of Satanic ritual abuse."

Wikipedia entry:


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The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at:

Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at:

Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to:

Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog.