Point Austin: Celebrating the Kellers’ Exoneration
On a happy day, too many others endure criminal injustice
On Wednesday morning, at the state comptroller's office, Fran and Dan Keller signed paperwork that will finally provide them financial compensation for their 21 years of wrongful incarceration, and nearly 25 years of enduring their reputations destroyed, brutality in prison, and a family scarred in a spasm of public hysteria. Longtime Chronicle readers are familiar with the "Fran's Day Care satanic ritual abuse case," one episode in a nationwide "satanic panic" that caught many innocent people in a frenzy of criminal injustice ("Believing the Children," March 27, 2009).
Many deserve praise for defending the Kellers when this day seemed impossible. Chronicle reporter Jordan Smith broke the story in 2009, and tracked down the onetime emergency room doctor, Michael Mouw, courageous enough to retract his original medical testimony when he realized he'd been mistaken – although investigators who could have acted on his retraction instead dismissed him. Attorney Keith Hampton took on the Keller case pro bono, and over many years doggedly presented arguments and jumped through bureaucratic hoops to incrementally move the case toward justice.
Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson wrote a sharp-eyed and brave opinion correctly describing the entire case against the Kellers as "a witch hunt from the beginning," when her colleagues could only muster minimal relief to the Kellers, without acknowledging that they were in fact innocent of any crime. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore carefully reviewed the record, and concluded what her predecessor could not admit: that the Kellers are "actually innocent" and deserve not just exoneration but the (inevitably inadequate) financial compensation that has finally come due. (Praise as well to the legislators who fought to create this compensation process, also as a minimal deterrent to overzealous, vindictive, or simply mistaken prosecutions.)
There are doubtless others to be thanked, notably family members and private citizens who have done what they could to provide help and emotional support to the Kellers through this terrible and seemingly unending public ordeal.
One of Many
The strongest exemplars of fortitude and endurance are Fran and Dan themselves, who have borne their decades-long burden with grace and forgiveness, occasionally in danger of losing hope but determined to accept with courage what fate has imposed upon them. The millions they've finally been awarded does not give them back their lost years nor redeem that suffering, but should at least enable them to support themselves, pay their doctors, and live through their retirement years in relative comfort. I'll confess, as one of those countless people whose "retirement" plans vaguely involve winning the Powerball, to a transitory and entirely unjust twinge of envy at the Kellers' windfall, while acknowledging that it will never actually compensate for the years of injustice they have experienced.
This is also a good moment to reflect on the larger meanings of the Keller case. Although theirs is an egregious example, it is all too common that the legal system stumbles in criminal cases, often most extremely in high-profile cases, where the stakes incentivize elected prosecutors to presume guilt or cut corners when they should instead be even more scrupulous in seeking justice rather than convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations (a joint project of the University of California at Irvine, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan) reflects 54 U.S. homicide exonerations in 2016 (of 166 total), including many in Texas. That is a mixed sign, since it means that while wrongful convictions continue to occur, at least a few are subject to greater scrutiny and overturned.
No Direct Measure
The Registry's research also reflects systemic racial imbalance among those who are convicted of serious crimes, and consequently those who are eventually exonerated. From the report's summation of several years of research: "African-Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in 'group exonerations.'"
These summary numbers reflect, of course, only those defendants who eventually win the exoneration lottery. The report goes on: "Judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people," and "African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers."
And there is this crucial reminder: "Most wrongful convictions are never discovered. We have no direct measure of the number of all convictions of innocent murder defendants, but our best estimate suggests that they outnumber those we know about many times over. Judging from exonerations, half of those innocent murder defendants are African-Americans."
Give thanks to all who had a hand in the exoneration of the Kellers. Never forget the thousands of others who are suffering similar injustice.