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Family Law Attorneys Say Keller Is Innocent

Veteran practitioners support Fran Keller's bid for freedom
Jordan Smith, 7:00am, Wed. Feb. 20, 2013
Photo by Jana Birchum
Frances Keller

A group of influential local family law attorneys, psychologists, and social workers have filed a court brief expressing their support for Frances Keller, who was convicted in 1992 of the sexual assault of a child – a crime that many, including the signers of the brief, believe never happened.

"The undersigned all believe that Fran Keller is serving a sentence for a crime that actually never occurred and we all have been haunted since 1992 by a strong feeling that an injustice had been done," reads the friend-of-the-court brief filed by family attorneys Terry Weeks and Joe Milner on behalf of themselves and 18 other veteran lawyers and criminal justice system stakeholders who were working in the field of family law back in the early Nineties. "We all firmly believe she is innocent of the crime of which she was convicted."

Keller and her husband, Danny, were each convicted and sentenced to 48 years in prison for the alleged sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl, Christy Chaviers, who'd been an infrequent drop-in at the home-based daycare center that the couple ran back in 1991. 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, and before too long the allegations expanded again to include wild tales that the Kellers had performed strange rituals while abusing Christy and at least two other children occasionally left in their care – stories seemingly prompted by insistent and repeated questioning by parents, and with the apparent approval of Chaviers' therapist, Donna David Campbell, who concluded that Christy had been a victim of "ritual abuse."

Indeed, the Kellers were among hundreds of daycare workers nationwide who were accused in the Eighties and Nineties of being accused of participating in "satanic cults" that abused daycare kids. A 2009 reinvestigation of the Keller case by the Chronicle cast serious doubt on the veracity of the state's case against the Kellers, and in January Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton filed an appeal on Fran Keller's behalf in an effort to finally prove her innocence.

The new friend-of-the-court brief was filed in support of Hampton's quest. Indeed, each of the signatories was not only working in Austin in the field of family law back when the Keller case was making headlines, but each has also been involved in cases where some type of abuse was alleged – and all of them are familiar with what they say was routinely passing for expert opinion in child abuses cases during that time period. Certain psychologists and "mental health workers" were routinely involved in these cases, reads the brief, which "could be explained by expertise, but a theme developed around certain treating professionals who seemed always to find sex abuse," reads the brief. "These were the days when the prevailing opinion was that children never lie and never are mistaken about sex abuse."

At the Kellers' trial, David Campbell testified that children simply don't have the ability to make-believe: "With a child...they don't have the cognitive, the mental abilities to make up stories unless they have seen something or if a story has been read to them." Of course, common sense and, now, scientific research shows exactly the opposite is true, Weeks, who got together the group of signatories for the newly-filed amicus brief, told the Chronicle this week. Weeks said he doesn't have any specific recollection of interactions with David Campbell, but said that there weren't enough "legal standards" in place at the time the Kellers were tried to keep out questionable expert opinions.

The amicus brief also points out that just as suddenly as the accusations of widespread satanic ritual abuse popped up, beginning in the Eighties, they also disappeared almost as quickly a decade or so later – a strange occurrence if the phenomenon was actually based in reality, he says. "The vector of satanic ritual abuse contagion was a group of mental health professionals who made an industry of discovering and testifying about ritual sexual abuse. Another vector of the contagion was a very large group of lawyers who joined into these cases with the same fervor as the mental health professionals," reads the amicus brief. "They built careers on this subject. And, almost as it had begun, the hysteria stopped. ...The phenomenon just disappeared. These monsters disappeared from our culture just as the witches disappeared from Salem. But the effects this hysteria wrought on countless lives did not go away. Those effects are still with us. Fran Keller will spend this night in prison."

The Travis County D.A.'s office has not yet filed a response to Keller's writ ‐ and under the law, the office is not required to do so – D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg said her office is still considering the case. And Judge Cliff Brown has not yet weighed in to designate what issues raised in Hampton's writ, if any, he believes are controverted and previously unresolved and should be reviewed, which he is required by law to do.*[UPDATE]

* Since this post went live the Chronicle got confirmation that Brown has designated controverted issues for review in the Keller case, including whether Keller is actually innocent.

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