Radley Balko reports on the recent release of two former Austin, Texas daycare owners … who’ve been in prison since 1992 on the testimony of a toddler and “expert evidence” from a satanic ritual expert and how the moral panic of the day made it impossible for the courts to see how utterly unlikely the case actually was:
The panic actually began in the 1980s. It was instigated and perpetuated mostly by groups of fundamentalist Christians who saw Satan in every heavy metal album, “Smurfs” episode, and Dungeons & Dragons game, along with a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis. What they did instead was shed some light on just how potent the power of suggestion can be. Remarkably, children were convinced to testify about horrifying — and entirely fictional — violations perpetrated on them by care workers and, in some cases, by their own parents.
But it wasn’t just children. As the Kellers’ conviction shows, the panic was so overwhelming, it could convince trained medical professionals to see abuse where there was none. Some defendants were convicted of gruesome crimes such as the aforementioned dismembering of babies despite the fact that there were no corpses and no babies missing from the immediate area.
That the highest court in Texas still can’t bring itself to declare the couple innocent, in spite of all that we know now, shows just how difficult it can be to undo the damage caused by a moral panic and junk science in the courtroom.
Here’s an observation from the panic that I don’t think has been fully explored: These kids didn’t make up these stories. In this case and dozens of others, the kids were telling tales with details about geography, history and current events about which kids of their age couldn’t have known. That’s likely what made their stories seem somewhat credible. But the fact that it all was fictitious reveals a particularly unsettling truth: These sick, lurid, unimaginable abuses could only have been a product of the imaginations of the therapists, social workers, cops and/or prosecutors who interviewed the children. If the memories were implanted, those are the only people who could have implanted them. That means that the same people entrusted to protect these kids, and in whom these communities trusted to police the streets, prosecute crimes and administer therapy, were ultimately the ones capable of dreaming up detailed sexual fantasies that put children in bizarre rituals involving violence, animals, corpses and so on.
There’s a lot to be learned from these cases. For one, there are lessons about professional accountability: Not only were the vast majority of the prosecutors who put these innocent people in prison in these cases never sanctioned, but also most went on to great professional success, sometimes because of their role in these high-profile cases, and sometimes even after it was widely known that the people they prosecuted were innocent. There are other lessons here about how we screen “expert” witnesses, and how bad science gets into the courtroom. There are lessons about the power of suggestion that could be applied to eyewitness testimony and how we conduct police lineups.
But the drawing of lessons is something we typically do once a crisis is over. This one still isn’t. There are still people in prison awaiting exoneration in these cases.