Two of the Last Victims of the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic Are Finally Free

Health and medicine explained.
Jan. 7 2014 11:48 PM

The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse

The dangers were imaginary, but the consequences were not.

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These kinds of suggestive techniques were used throughout the questioning of the children in the Keller case, as they were in other satanic ritual abuse trials; by the time of the trial, allegations that emerged under questioning like this would form the basis of the prosecution’s claims.

Assistant DA Taliaferro is right in pointing out that the Keller convictions weren’t entirely about believing in satanic ritual abuse. They also relied on another piece of fantasy: the alleged physical evidence. This, too, was consistent with other satanic ritual abuse cases, where inaccurate physical evidence frequently played a major part in convincing otherwise skeptical juries.

Michael Mouw was the emergency-room doctor who examined Christy Chaviers after she told her mother that Dan Keller had abused her. Mouw testified during the trial that Christy’s labia minora and hymen had appeared reddened and that he had observed some lacerations to the hymen. Those lacerations, he said at the time, were consistent with sexual abuse. Mouw’s testimony was then taken as corroborating evidence that Christy had indeed been abused.

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Except his observations weren't evidence of abuse at all. Mouw has since recanted his testimony, declaring that he knew soon after the trial that his conclusion was inaccurate and “not scientifically or medically valid.” At the time he examined her, he said during a hearing about the Kellers’ appeal in August, he was an inexperienced emergency-room doctor who had little direct experience with or training to handle pediatric sexual abuse cases; subsequent research showed Christy’s “lacerations” were simply a natural formation of her genitalia. (Echoes of this junk science evidence are heard in the case of the San Antonio Four, four lesbians who were convicted and imprisoned for more than 15 years for the alleged sexual abuse of two young girls.)

“Sometimes it takes time to figure out what you don’t know,” Mouw testified in August. “I was mistaken.”

And that was what finally freed the Kellers—that and the attention paid to the case by dogged Austin Chronicle reporter Jordan Smith, attorney Hampton’s efforts, and the support from the psychology community in Texas. Travis County District Attorney Lehmberg agreed that Mouw’s testimony had likely “affected the judgment of the jury” and violated the Kellers’ right to a fair trial; she agreed that the Kellers should be freed on bond.

But recanting dubious medical evidence does not a declaration of innocence make. The next step for the Kellers is to hear the ruling of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Lehmberg’s office released a statement on Nov. 26 indicating that no further action will be taken on the Kellers’ cases until the court issues its review, essentially meaning that if the DA is planning to pursue a retrial, she’s not saying. Even if the state doesn’t revisit the case, Hampton is still planning to press the Kellers’ innocence claim, which will likely require litigation to achieve full exoneration for the couple. Exoneration will be both an emotional and practical victory: It will entitle the Kellers to money Texas pays to victims of wrongful conviction.

“Somebody needs to pay for this,” says Donna Bankston, Fran Keller’s daughter. Bankston wants her mother to be able to enjoy “what few years she has left” in peace and not have to work. But, Bankston added, “There’s no amount of money that can bring back 23 years of their life … there’s no amount of money that can bring back all that hard time in prison.”

And no matter how the satanic ritual abuse panic can be explained, it remains bewildering to people, like the Kellers, who lived through it. They’re now trying to pick up the threads of lives that were lost more than two decades ago; Fran is staying with Bankston, while Dan is living with his sister. They’re both in a kind of limbo—they’re free but not, according to the state, innocent.

Hampton is cautiously optimistic that their exoneration will be successful and has somewhat muted feelings about getting them released. “It’s not like the feeling of ‘I just won a trial’—that’s not the feeling. It isn’t a vindication of justice; it’s ‘I’ve stopped the continuation of an injustice’ instead of vindication,” he said. “Maybe I’ll feel differently if I get them exonerated. Maybe I’ll feel it’s really been righted.”

As far as we know, only one other person remains in prison on a conviction stemming from the satanic ritual abuse panic: Frank Fuster, a Florida man who was convicted in 1985 on 14 counts of child sexual abuse in part on the evidence provided by his wife’s supposedly recovered memories and sentenced to 165 years in prison. But, as Nathan pointed out, a number of cases where investigators were motivated by fears of satanic ritual abuse may have simply flown under the radar. By the 1990s, prosecutors knew that satanic ritual abuse accusations could be used by the defense to cast doubt on charges, and they became more reluctant to air supposed evidence in court—instead, investigations that may have been launched on suspicions of ritual abuse were called “multivictim, multiperpetrator,” language that obscured the cases’ origins.

Though satanic ritual abuse cases are virtually unheard of now, the panic hasn’t entirely subsided. A number of groups and people still very much believe in satanic and other ritual abuse; Randy Noblitt, the expert witness called by the prosecution in the Kellers’ trial, is one of them (and he’s still on faculty at Alliant International University).

Even if most of us don’t believe Satan is lurking in day care centers, we’re not immune to the panic people felt. Nathan points to the outsize concern (disproportionate to their rarity) over child “predators” or the epidemic of teen sexting as potential modern panic candidates: “One of the hallmarks of a panic is that you don’t realize it’s a panic when you’re in the middle of it.”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a writer based in London. Her first book, Princesses Behaving Badly, is out now.