GIST: "The 1992 prosecution of  Fran and Dan Keller was based on a trifecta of credulousness, hysteria, and bad evidence. The middle-aged couple was living quietly in Austin, Texas, where they ran a small drop-in day care out of their home, when the unimaginable happened: A little girl occasionally left in the Kellers’ care made a claim of abuse at the hands of the couple. At first, the allegation was simple: Dan Keller had spanked her, the 3-year-old told her mother in the summer of 1991. But rather quickly — in part due to repeated questioning by her mother and a therapist who had treated the girl for behavioral problems before she’d ever visited the Kellers — the allegation morphed into accusations far more lurid. By the time the Kellers were tried, three children (whose parents were, at least for a time, all regularly communicating about the Kellers) had described a shocking panoply of sadistic abuse: Dan Keller repeatedly sexually assaulted the little girl with a pen and Fran performed oral sex on her; the Kellers dug a grave in their backyard and placed the girl in it; they tortured and killed animals and decapitated and disemboweled a baby; the children had been flown to Mexico where they were abused by military officials; Fran Keller cut off the finger of a gorilla in a local park; the Kellers gave the children blood-laced Kool-Aid; and the couple held a gun to one little boy’s head and forced him to assault his infant sister while they videotaped the abuse — among other alleged acts. There was, however, no evidence to corroborate any of the claims — and scant evidence to suggest the little girl had ever suffered any sexual abuse. Indeed, what should have been a straightforward abuse investigation became something much more — an investigation into so-called satanic ritual abuse, spurred by a peculiar form of mass hysteria that spread across the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The most infamous of the SRA cases is the McMartin Preschool case, from California, where staff at the school were accused of acts eerily similar to those made nearly a decade later against the Kellers. The case still holds the dubious distinction of being the longest criminal trial in the nation’s history. (The owner of the preschool was ultimately acquitted, and after two juries deadlocked, charges against her son were dismissed.) Today, there are few true believers left who vocally insist upon this history. To many in the criminal justice system, it is now a source of embarrassment that there was ever a time when police and prosecutors were convinced that bands of Satanists had infiltrated the nation’s day care centers in order to abuse young children. Yet in the Kellers’ case, which I investigated for the Austin Chronicle back in 2009, I was startled to hear both a veteran cop and prosecutor say they still believed in even the most absurd of the children’s allegations against the Kellers. Today, although they were finally freed from prison a few years ago, the Kellers have yet to be officially exonerated — even as the moral panic that led to their conviction has been thoroughly debunked. This is a devastating state of play for the couple. They spent their prime earning years in prison and now live on the most modest of Social Security income — Fran says they have to make regular trips to the food bank to ensure they have enough to eat. Moreover, with accusations of sexual abuse still hanging over their heads — the state has yet to dismiss the charges — they are wary of being around any children, including their own 24 great grandchildren. To make matters worse, the aging couple has chronic medical issues that need tending to — medical problems in part caused by abuses they suffered in prison. Behind bars, those convicted of sexual abuse of children are considered among the lowest of the low and are regular targets of violence by other inmates and even guards, which is exactly what happened to the Kellers..........Indeed, prosecutors wield extraordinary, unparalleled, and unchecked power. “They alone decide who to prosecute for criminal offenses, what charges to bring against them, and what punishments to seek,” as the National Registry’s report says. “In practice, that power extends to convicted defendants as well. If a sitting prosecutor asks the appropriate court to vacate the judgment and dismiss the charges against a defendant … it will happen.”  But this requires political will. And too often, the will is not there. As (Austin criminal defence attorney Keith) Hampton notes, convincing a prosecutor that an injustice has happened can be a tough pull. “Unless you have DNA — unless you get the D.A. completely cornered — there are no profiles in courage out there,” he says. Still, the number of exonerations in cases where no crime was actually committed are on the rise — so at least in some jurisdictions, individuals aren’t forever left in the kind of limbo in which the Kellers find themselves. The National Registry includes 540 exonerations in no-crime cases, including 51 exonerations in child sex abuse “hysteria” cases like the Kellers."

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