Fran and Dan Keller’s names have been totally cleared this week after spending 21 years in jail for crimes that never even happened. They were released from prison at the end of 2013 after their case was re-examined but because of challenges inherent in the legal system, they were not formally exonerated. Thanks to a new “nascent conviction integrity unit” working under an equally new County District Attorney, Margaret Moore, court documents have now been filed which officially state there “is no credible evidence” and her personal review indicates exoneration of the Kellers “to be a just outcome.”
Starting in 1987, an “episode of mass hysteria known as the Satanic Panic,” blazed through the child daycare industry with wild tales of Satanic ritual killings and sexual abuse. The most famous of these cases was the one involving the McMartin Preschool.
The Keller’s ordeal began in 1991 when allegations that a three-year-old was sexually assaulted first surfaced. As the shoddy investigation progressed it became more and more outlandish. It started with claims that Dan had spanked the child “like daddy” had. Then third-degree techniques and leading questions soon progressed to a fantasy land of alleged rape and child orgies as more children were pulled into the ever widening “witch hunt.” Babies had been sacrificed, there were trips to graveyards, plane rides, even blood in the Kool-aid.
The couple had their trial in 1992 at a time when similar cases were getting national attention all across the country. Each was given a 48-year prison sentence.
Jordan Smith started looking into the case in 2008 when working for the Austin Chronicle. He was soon flabbergasted by what some of the things prosecuting attorneys and police investigators were willing to believe and the incredible weakness of the evidence used to successfully convict the Kellers. It took a court order to get the Austin Police Department to release the investigation report to the paper.
According to Smith, “After reading the report, it was not hard to understand why the department had fought to keep it secret. It was an ALL-CAPS, run-on-sentence fever dream full of breathless accusations and absent any actual investigation that could prove or disprove the claims.”
The lead investigator made a regular habit of taking the girl who started the accusations to McDonald’s then going for drives around the area for the child to point out locations. The girl would proceed to give imaginative details of how practically every home they passed had bad people who did very terrible things to her, others, animals, and corpses. Several cemeteries were toured with lurid tales of graves being dug up, people shot and buried, babies dismembered. “Not once did investigators question the child’s statements.”
One woman noticed the increased visitation of the cemetery next to her house which she kept a casual eye on. She approached the officer when he was taking one of the numerous trips with the girl and her mother to “investigate.” When he told the neighbor he was investigating strange happenings in the cemetery, she informed the officer that as far as she knew they were the only ones near the place for a very long time.
The re-investigation eventually confirmed there was only one seemingly solid piece of evidence that tied the Keller’s to any kind of crime. Michael Mouw was a young doctor who worked in the emergency room of a local hospital and had examined the young accuser. He reported there was damage that could have happened from sexual abuse. Shortly after he wrote his report, he learned at a medical conference “that what he had interpreted as signs of abuse were nothing more than a normal variant of female genitalia.” This is what is known in legal terms as a “fundamental” change in his opinion.
During the 2013 hearing to review the case he stated there was no doubt whatsoever that he had made a mistake and that the child’s anatomy was normal. He also said he tried to say that to the Austin Police Department as soon as he found out about his mistake, but the detective did not want to hear it.
After the review hearing, the new DA was convinced the Keller’s trial had not been fair and they were released just before Christmas. She had no intention of putting them back on trial but could not justify to herself to exonerate them without evidence to prove no crime ever happened. That is virtually impossible to accomplish. Between Dr. Mouw, Jordan Smith, and Keith Hampton, who is an attorney that worked without pay for more than six years, the Kellers names have been cleared and they are free to rebuild what they can of their shattered lives.
Hampton said of the Kellers, “I’m very happy for them, and this is huge for the ultimate resolution of this case. We can’t give them their 21 years back, but we are doing everything else we can to restore them. When we finally do that, then they’ll be in a position to forgive us for what we as a society did to them.”
Jordan Smith points out what should be a warning to everyone. “Contrary to what many people might think, you don’t have a right not to be convicted of a crime you did not commit. For the most part, the Constitution is silent on this point. Instead, the focus is on whether a person received a fair trial. Did you have at least minimally competent lawyers? Were you afforded the ability to cross-examine witnesses against you? If so, then your conviction — even for a crime that never happened — should stand.”