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Point Austin: A Taste of Freedom

Thanks to those who fought for justice – the fight continues

By Michael King, Fri., Dec. 6, 2013

Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference – with words. – Elizabeth Hardwick, "Grub Street: New York," 1963

While I can't accede entirely to Hardwick's opening sniff at the daily grind, few of us in fact drift into journalism for the money. Considering the current state of the industry, anyone who does so is not only mercenary, but just plain daft. In large part, we do what we do because we want to "make a difference." Nevertheless, after years of toil in this particular Austin hedgerow, I don't routinely expect tangible evidence of having some public, positive effect.

But this is indeed one of those times. The work of the Chronicle, and most especially of staff writer Jordan Smith, has been directly instrumental in correcting a terrible and ongoing injustice. Thanks to her reporting, wrongfully imprisoned Fran Keller is now free, and Dan Keller should be free before long (see "Freedom for the Kell­ers," p.30). That's not the end of their legal ordeal, and it cannot begin to compensate for more than two decades of incarceration – but we can celebrate this week that their 1992 convictions on "satanic ritual abuse" charges will almost certainly be overturned, and that the work of Jordan and her colleagues here at the paper has had an important hand in making that happen.

Had Jordan not dug into the dormant case some years ago ("Believ­ing the Child­ren," Mar. 27, 2009), it's almost certain the legal proceedings which led to this successful outcome would never have begun. She reviewed the credulous police and prosecutorial files that recounted the fantastical and often literally impossible "testimony" used as evidence in the case – much of it evoked from easily led children by hysterical or professionally incompetent adults – and she consulted experts on the "satanic ritual" hysteria of the period as well as the forensic misuse of child interviews. Most importantly, she contacted the former emergency room doctor, Michael Mouw, who had provided the only trial testimony citing actual physical evidence – and he was honest and courageous enough to retract his original judgment, and even to acknowledge he was not qualified at the time to offer such a diagnosis.

That was the specific detail of reporting, within her larger investigative story, that led to the Kellers' release. We're very proud to be associated in even a small way with Jordan's work in ending a bitter injustice.

Congratulations All Around

Beyond that, there are plenty of others who had a hand in this important victory. In April 1994, Gary Cartwright wrote an important story ("The Innocent and the Damned") for Texas Monthly, which still provides a road map to the Kellers' preposterous investigation and prosecution. Debbie Nathan – with Michael Snedeker, the author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (1995) – chronicled the nationwide hysteria that produced the widespread "satanic ritual" prosecutions, among them the Keller case. Her continuing work with the National Center for Reason and Justice has helped many others accused in similar circumstances (see "'Ritual Abuse,' the San Anton­io Four, and Public Hysteria," p.32).

This important spadework meant that when discussion of the Keller case resurfaced in 2008, during the initial election campaign of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, there was already skepticism in the air, and Jordan could build on the work that had preceded her. Once her story had been published, the Innocence Project of Texas and eventually Austin attorney Keith Hampton became involved. It was Hampton's appellate brief – which sets forth in great detail all the investigative abuses and follies that led to the Kellers' conviction – that finally led to their liberation from prison. All of these people deserve congratulations for their roles in restoring justice.

A Call for Exoneration

The story remains far from an ending. The case will now proceed to the Court of Criminal Appeals – hardly a redoubt of progressive legal thought – and even should the CCA approve the agreement by prosecutors that Mouw's testimony irrevocably tainted the trial, there remains at least the possibility of a retrial, as the D.A.'s office declined to concur that the entire prosecution was rife with investigative misconduct, factual errors, withheld evidence, and reliance on unbelievable testimony. Any attempt to retry the Kellers would be a laughable outrage; but beyond that, the prosecutors need to sit down, reconsider the public hysteria that led to this travesty, and finally acknowledge not only that the Kellers are innocent, but that in fact no such crimes ever happened.

Whatever happens now, we cannot hope to restore to the Kellers the decades of their lives that they have lost, or to fully right the injustices done to them. They deserve exoneration and compensation, certainly, and beyond that some time to decide what's best for them going forward. That will be their choice. Perhaps, like the exonerated Michael Morton, they'll be willing to share their story publicly, in hopes to diminish the likelihood that such hysterical prosecutions will happen again.

Make no mistake, others have happened since, in Texas and elsewhere. While real child abuse, mostly family-based, still often goes unreported or unnoticed, the widespread public credulity for fantastical scenarios – fed and reinforced by complacent, sensationalist media – too often leads to the hysteria that unjustly pursued and imprisoned the Kellers.

The Keller case – a terrible scar on Austin's "progressive" history – insistently calls to mind the remark often attributed to Voltaire: Those who can be persuaded to believe absurdities, can be made to commit atrocities.

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