Fran Keller, one of the last Americans in jail from a long-gone era of hysteria over “Satanic ritual abuse,” is free. The 63-year-old grandmother walked out of Travis County jail last night at 7:30 after posting bond. She had been awakened at 1 a.m. at her cell at the Gatesville Unit and told to get ready—she’d be going home after 21 years in prison. Her ex-husband Dan will be freed sometime next week.
The Kellers were convicted in 1992 of sexually abusing children at a day care center they ran in Oak Hill, south of Austin; each got 48 years. The convictions were based in large part on allegations made by three kids that bordered on the hallucinatory: that the Kellers defecated and urinated in their hair, put spells on them, baptized them in blood in a backyard pool, made them sacrifice babies—one of whom they cut open so they could drink its blood and hold its beating heart in their hands. The kids claimed the Kellers flew them to Mexico and made them dig up graves in Oak Hill. Much of it was allegedly filmed, and all of it happened while they were enrolled in a busy day care center.
Still, no physical evidence was ever found backing up the allegations. The only thing approaching physical evidence was testimony from a young Brackenridge Hospital ER doctor named Michael Mouw, who examined one of the girls. At trial, he said he found “what appeared to be lacerations” on the girl’s hymen and they could have come from sex abuse.
That did it for the Kellers, who were sent away—at the same time that hundreds of other Americans were being locked up in similar “ritual abuse” cases. Over the years, those people were freed, as children recanted and common sense prevailed. Just last week three San Antonio women, also convicted of child sex abuse in the nineties on the words of mendacious children, were released, after a fourth had been freed the year before (they are called the “San Antonio 4”). The Kellers remained in prison, largely forgotten.
Until yesterday. The action came on the heels of a writ of habeas corpus filed by lawyer Keith Hampton in January. Hampton also worked on the San Antonio 4 case, along with Mike Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas. The actions in both cases came about because of a relatively new Texas law based on the so-called Tulia Bill, which was passed in 2003 in the wake of the Tulia drug scandal—it allowed fourteen inmates, all of whom had been sent to prison on the word of a disgraced informant, to be released on bond pending a decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals. The law became a little-used way for dealing with cases like these, where both sides agree an egregious wrongful conviction took place, but the normal way of fixing things—writs, motions, depositions, hearings—would take too long to right the wrong. As in the Tulia case, both the San Antonio 4 and the Kellers are ultimately subject to a final decision by the CCA; their lawyers, along with their prosecutors, will file motions with the judge in the convicting court, who will make a recommendation to the high court.
Another similarity between the San Antonio and Austin cases is that both are being driven by changing science—the medical science of the hymen. The only physical evidence in the San Antonio Four case was testimony from a pediatrician named Nancy Kellogg, who said that a 2-3mm white “scar” (about the width of a quarter) on the hymen of one of the young girls making sex-abuse allegations against the four defendants could have been evidence of sexual assault. Now we know better. What about the dozens of other inmates in Texas convicted of child-sex abuse and sent away because of testimony that scars or lacerations on hymens were evidence of abuse? It’s safe to say we should expect to see more writs soon based on changing science.
And we should expect more scenes like we saw last week in San Antonio and last night at the Travis County jail—family, friends, and media waiting for innocent persons to come out. The three people who helped most to free the Kellers were waiting outside last night. Gary Cartwright was the first to share the Kellers story with the world, writing a passionate and comprehensive story on the case for Texas Monthly in 1994. Jordan Smith has been covering the story for the Austin Chronicle since 2009, and her exhaustive story from that year led directly to yesterday’s release. In her reporting, she found and interviewed Mouw, who told her that, back in 1991, he had been a young doctor and had made a mistake. “Nobody had called the doctor in eighteen years,” Smith recalled yesterday outside the jail. “I asked him if he would mind reviewing his testimony. He said he’d learned shortly after he gave it that those weren’t necessarily injuries, they were normal.” Hampton took over the case in 2010, after Smith’s piece came out. In the writ he filed in January he attacked the (literally) unbelievable testimony of the kids but also leaned heavily on an affidavit he had received from Mouw, who wrote, “While my testimony was based on my good faith belief at that time, I now realize my conclusion is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken.” That was enough for DA Rosemary Lehmberg and judge Cliff Brown. Dan and Fran had to go free.
At one point last night Keller’s daughter Donna Bankston approached Cartwright with tears in her eyes. “Thank you so much,“ she said, giving him a hug. Cartwright had visited both Dan and Fran (who divorced not long after going to prison) after his story and even written letters in support of their parole. “I never had any doubt about their innocence,” he said. “I couldn’t believe others didn’t see what I saw. It was like a witch hunt.”
Bankston was ecstatic about her mom’s impending freedom. “There’s been a lot of people praying for her and Danny,” she said, “and our prayers have been answered. She’s extremely happy, also very scared. She hasn’t been out in the real world in 23 years.” She says Fran will be living with her in Alamo Ranch, in San Antonio. “We’re going to have Thanksgiving, and a lot of family will be there. We have a whole lot to be thankful for.”
At 7:30 p.m. Fran was released, meeting Bankston at a side door of the Travis County jail. They jumped into a car and drove off to San Antonio. Fran insists she will be waiting for Dan when he gets out next week.