Monday, December 02, 2013

20th century witch hunts

I have some readers who seem not to believe that mass hysteria could lead to false charges and convictions for child abuse. Many such cases have been documented.

One sign that these cases are bogus is that there are wildly implausible and nonsensical accusations. Another is the supposed expert testimony of a quack with no reliable expertise in the subject matter.

Reuters reports on a new exoneration:
Texas has released a woman who spent 21 years in jail on charges of sexually abusing children in satanic rituals at her daycare facility, saying expert medical testimony that helped convict her was wrong.

Frances Keller, 63, was released on bond late Tuesday night and her husband, Dan Keller, who was convicted at the same time, will be released within a week in a deal reached with lawyers for the two, the Travis County district attorney's office said.

"There is a reasonable likelihood that (the medical expert's) false testimony affected the judgment of the jury and violated Frances Keller's right to a fair trial," Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney for Travis County, which is located in central Texas and includes the city of Austin, said in a statement.

The release comes on the heels of a similar move in San Antonio where prosecutors agreed this month to release three lesbian women imprisoned since 1998 on sexual assault convictions that critics say were based on junk science and false views on sexual orientation.

Michael Mouw, the doctor whose testimony helped convict the Kellers, said in an affidavit presented to court this year that he had little training at the time on how to examine sexual abuse in children and came to the wrong conclusions in examining a child in the Keller case.

"While my testimony was based on a good faith belief at that time, I now realize my conclusion is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken," he said in the affidavit, which was obtained by Reuters

The Kellers were convicted of sexually abusing a 3-year-old girl in their care and faced accusations of dismembering corpses, putting blood in drinks served to children and flying children to Mexico, where they would be sexually abused.

"The Keller case is definitely about the panic back then," Keith Hampton, a lawyer for Frances Keller, told Reuters.

Hampton filed a 128-page writ earlier this year in which he sought to refute the accusations leveled against the Kellers as well as describe the panic about daycare in that era.

The convictions in Texas were part of a national trend in the 1980s and early 1990s triggered by sensational accusations of satanic rituals and the sexual abuse of hundreds of children at a California preschool in what was known as the McMartin case.

Daytime talk show hosts stoked the fire with segments describing horrors inflicted upon children at daycare.

Between 1984 to 1989, some 100 people nationwide were charged with ritual sex abuse and 50 were put on trial, according to Debbie Nathan of the National Center for Reason and Justice, which works to free those wrongly imprisoned.
Another newspaper reports:
The Kellers, tried together in 1992, were sentenced to 48 years in prison after three children from their home-based Southeast Austin day care made allegations of sexual abuse that included strange and horrific rituals.

For those who believed in the prevalence of ritual abuse, the allegations were powerful proof that secret societies and dangerous cults — often protected by top politicians, business leaders and law officers — engaged in depraved attacks on children who could be dominated and indoctrinated through pain, humiliation and terror.

But for Hampton and other skeptics, the Kellers were the victims of an investigation run amok, featuring poor fact-gathering and interview techniques that spurred three young children to devise ever-more fantastic claims of abuse that should have raised doubts. Instead, in the hysteria over similar claims at day cares nationwide, the case spiraled out of control, Hampton said. ...

“A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt and render justice accordingly,” the appeal said.
There have been a bunch of TV documentaries on these bogus cases. Here is one that impressed me:
About a third of the way into the movie, the Cummings describe how neighbors were being arrested, including one close friend that they knew had to be innocent. They decided that a witch hunt was in progress, and they had to get out. They had both lived in Bakersfield their whole lives, but they packed up and left the state in the middle of the night, never to go back.
I wish I could say that these 20th century witch-hunts do not happen anymore, but they do.

A current witch-hunt is the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal, as I argued here, here, and here. The scandal is costing Penn State maybe $100M or so. The core of the allegation is that Sandusky was regularly taking underage boys to the campus gym, and anally raping them in the shower where anyone could see him, and Penn State officials knowingly permitted it.

This is as crazy as the satanic ritual allegations. Sandusky was a retired coach with no power or authority over anyone. Nobody would have let him rape anyone, and there certainly could not be a conspiracy to cover up rape. The story is wildly implausible.

I would have to accept it if there were bodily fluids, video recordings, or any other objective evidence. But there is not. The only evidence is the recovered memories of people who changed their stories years later while preparing to sue Penn State for millions of dollars.

If you think that Sandusky is a creep, that's fine, you are entitled to your opinion. Maybe he is, and maybe he is not. My point here is that the public was overwhelmingly persuaded that Penn State was horrible, when the actual evidence against it was very slim and had bad motives.

Update: Penn State prosecutors have just released their strongest case against the Penn State officials, with emails showing that the officials knew more than they admitted to the grand jury, assuming that the officials read all of their emails 20 years ago. Also:
In a matter sure to be hotly disputed at trial, Spanier testified he never knew the allegations against Sandusky were of a sexual nature. Spanier told the jurors he was told a staff member (McQueary) had witnessed “horsing around” in the showers that made that staff member uncomfortable.

McQueary has repeatedly testified that he told Paterno, and later Curley and Schultz, that he believed he was witnessing a sexual assault.

Spanier told grand jurors that message was never conveyed to him, and “I know better than to jump to conclusions about things like that.” ...

The perjury charges will not be easy to prove.
The trouble with this accusation is that McQueary only gave that testimony after supposedly recovering memories from many years earlier. If McQueary witnesses a sexual assault, then he should have stopped it or reported it to the police at the time. He had the power to do both and did neither, making him a horrible person, if he is now telling the truth. He has changed his story a few times since. Now he is suing Penn State for millions of dollars, and his payoff depends on him sticking to his current story.

I do not believe McQueary. By his own words, he is such a morally damaged man that he is unreliable. It is possible that some of the Penn State administrators lied about some of the emails, but that is a minor matter. Lying about emails is not what made this a big scandal.


Anonymous said...

Don't know about Sandusky, but the Kellers seem completely innocent.

Dorothy Rabinowitz gets much of the credit and won a Pulitzer prize for putting a stop to the daycare sex abuse witch hunts of the late '80s and early '90s.

George said...

Yes, Rabinowitz deserves a lot of credit. Someone told me that he will believe that Penn State is guilty unless and until Rabinowitz writes a book exposing faulty prosecution.

We do not need to wait when the accusations are fantastic and the evidence is thin.