In 1992, Daniel and Frances Keller were convicted of sexually abusing a 3-year-old child in Travis County, Texas. The prosecution’s wild claims that the Kellers were Satanists, coming in an era when “Satanic Panic” had gripped the nation, were fueled by expert testimony.
The Kellers were granted a new trial in 2013 after spending 21 years in prison. In June 2017, the prosecution finally admitted that its case against the Kellers was too weak to pursue. Without directly acknowledging that the Kellers were innocent, the district attorney noted that “the current state of law on actual innocence and the evidence remaining in this case” made dismissal of the charges a just outcome.
During the 1980s and 1990s, it was widely believed that Satanists were “running clandestine, national child sex abuse rings.” The national hysteria that has since become known as Satanic Panic led to false criminal charges against hundreds of people, many of whom were daycare and childcare providers.
The most notorious cases were the McMartin preschool trial and the Margaret Kelly Michaels trial. In the McMartin case, the operators of a daycare center were charged with sexually molesting dozens of children based on fanciful stories that teachers “sacrificed a baby in a church and made the children drink the blood” and engaged in other acts of ritual abuse. Even though children claimed that teachers “dressed up as witches and flew in the air,” prosecutors chose to believe their claims of having been abused and assured jurors that the children were reliable witnesses.
The McMartin accusations did not lead to any convictions, but Margaret Kelly Michaels spent six years in prison after being convicted of child abuse at Wee Care Day Nursery. Michaels was prosecuted and convicted despite the absence of any physical evidence suggesting that any child had ever been abused. Her conviction was overturned after “a three-judge appellate division panel ruled that her trial was full of egregious prosecutorial abuses, including questioning of the children that planted suggestions, tainting their testimony.”
Expert Testimony After Satanic Panic
The McMartin and Michaels trials, among others, motivated psychologists to study the phenomenon of false accusations of child sexual abuse. Their studies revealed that young children are extremely susceptible to suggestion. Leading or suggestive questions posed by parents, police officers, or social workers cause young children to give answers they believe adult authority figures want to hear.
Even worse, such questioning, however well-intentioned it might be, can implant false memories in children, who come to believe that they were abused even when no abuse occurred. In fact, many experts now agree that improper questioning of children is itself a form of child abuse since it causes children to live with memories of trauma that they did not actually experience.
The research led to the development of standards and training in methods of questioning children that guard against influencing their answers. Many professionals record their questioning so that judges and juries can determine whether the questions tainted the answers.
When child abuse prosecutions are based on stories told by young children, particularly when the abuse is not supported by clear physical evidence, it is now common for defense attorneys to retain an expert witness who will review reports, transcripts, and videos to determine whether the questioning may have influenced the child’s accusations. Experts can also explain how a parent’s unrecorded interaction with a child may have caused a child to form false memories even before the child was questioned by a trained professional.
Experts in the Keller Case
Unfortunately, when the Satanic abuse accusations against the Kellers were taken to trial, most people did not understand that the testimony of children is easily influenced. Rather, police officers, social workers, judges, and juries all tended to hold the false belief that children don’t lie about being sexually abused.
The accusations against the Kellers originated with a troubled girl named Christy, who was seeing a therapist as the result of behavioral problems that began during her parents’ acrimonious divorce. Unfortunately for the Kellers, Christy’s therapist was a firm believer that ritual abuse actually existed. James Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in child forensic interviews, believes “that the way Christy was questioned by a Travis County social worker led her to accuse the Kellers of abuse.”
Now that Satanic Panic is known to have been based on hysteria rather than fact, it is easy to dismiss some of the wild accusations made against the Kellers, including the claim that children were told to cut up other children with chain saws. At the time, however, prosecutors unabashedly asked jurors to believe those stories, and relied on expert witnesses to demonize the Kellers.
The prosecution based much of its case on the expert testimony of Randy Noblitt, “a psychologist from California who acknowledged under oath he had never interviewed Christy himself, but nonetheless was certain she had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse.” Using modern standards of expert witness admissibility, a court might well hold that a psychologist who diagnoses a subject without interviewing her has not based his expert opinions on a reliable methodology.
Dr. Noblitt, portraying himself as an expert in cults, also told the jury about the widespread “existence of cults using ritual abuse and of organized satanic networks engaged in wide-ranging criminal enterprises including child abuse.” He claimed that “cults typically engage in torture and murder of both adults and children.” One would hope that a judge today would rule that expert testimony is inadmissible when it is grounded on the expert’s alleged knowledge of “facts” that have no basis in reality.
Finally, the Kellers’ convictions were based on the expert testimony of Michael Mouw, a physician who testified that he observed physical evidence of sexual abuse. By the time the Kellers were released, Dr. Mouw had recanted, admitting that his testimony was mistaken. It was that belated recantation that caused an appellate court to reverse the Kellers’ convictions, and that contributed to the current district attorney’s decision to dismiss the charges.
Expert witnesses should always be neutral advocates for the truth. When experts become advocates for an agenda, they too often base their testimony on unsupportable theories, such as “children never lie about sexual abuse” or “Satanic cults are causing widespread harm to children.”
Standards for admitting or excluding expert testimony are often a source of controversy. At least in a criminal case, where the freedom of the accused is at stake and the Constitution guarantees a fair trial, no evidentiary standard should allow a judge to admit an expert’s agenda-driven testimony that isn’t grounded in objective, real-world facts. When judges fail to apply that standard, innocent people like the Kellers are sent to prison.