“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878

depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family

How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors

destroyed the lives of seven innocent North Carolinians – and

have yet to admit they were wrong

Betsy Kelly barred from reunion (but still got T-shirt!)

June 28, 2015

“Today in Edenton members of John A. Holmes High School's Class of ’73 will walk across a stage in caps and gowns, receive diplomas and turn tassels on their mortar boards  – 20 years late.

“Their graduation ceremony was cancelled abruptly in 1973. A decision not to renew the contract of a black band leader had caused racial unrest, and school officials feared a disruption.... Diplomas were mailed to the 142 graduates....

“One member who doesn’t plan to attend is Elizabeth Twiddy Kelly.... A condition of her [$400,000] bond prohibits her from going to her hometown.

“ ‘There are a lot of them I would love to just touch base with, but that will have to happen another year,’ Mrs. Kelly said.

“The class committee plans to send her a class T-shirt and a letter.”

– From “Class of ’73” by the Associated Press (June 12, 1993) 

 

Seven months later Betsy Kelly pleaded no contest to charges of child sex abuse, while maintaining her innocence, and accepted a sentence of seven years in prison. She was paroled in November 1994. 

  

 

In 1993, predicting a historic marker – and more

June 18, 2015

Given my thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to persuade the State of North Carolina to erect a historic marker recalling the Little Rascals Day Care case, I had to laugh at discovering this 1993 letter to the Elizabeth City Daily Advance:

 

“Dear Editor:

“The year is 2022. The town of Edenton, last stop on the witch-hunt trail beginning in Salem, Mass., with an intermediate stop at Joe McCarthy’s office in Washington, D.C., has finally decided to build a historic marker. [It will be] directly across the street from the town’s $4 million tour center, where people gather from across the nation (indeed, from around the world) to see and feel and learn about the Edenton witch hunts of 1990-1993....

“It is here where the walking tours start, where the T-shirts are sold and where the buses disgorge their curious cargo....”

 

Letter writer David W. Tucker of San Francisco – who in all likelihood had recently watched “Innocence Lost: The Verdict” – expressed confidence that the marker
would eventually be approved, even if not by 2022:

“The only question is whether the marker will speak of the community’s collective shame
or, instead, of the individuals and groups of good will and courage who brought lasting honor to Edenton by rescuing Bob Kelly, Dawn Wilson, the Twiddy family and the others from the nightmare that fear, hate and ignorance visited upon them....”

  

 

‘A personal mission to have Bob put behind bars’

June 14, 2015

Long after Bob Kelly reclaimed his freedom, he continued to fear that prosecutor Nancy Lamb was searching for yet another excuse to send him back to prison.

His apprehension was entirely reasonable.

In 1996, less than a year after the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned Kelly’s conviction in the Little Rascals case, Lamb had had him indicted on a new round of sex charges, supposedly unrelated and transparently dubious.

According to correspondence I recently happened onto, a lawyer who attended a scheduling conference for Kelly’s upcoming trial was startled by Lamb’s unprofessional demeanor: 

 

“It was very obvious... that Nancy is on a personal mission to have Bob put behind bars for something. Her voice and her hands were noticeably shaking throughout the meeting and at times she wiped moisture from her eyes.

“I just don’t see how she can go through an entire trial without exposing to the jury this ‘witch hunt’ mentality that has consumed her....”

 

For whatever reason – she claimed, as usual, to be looking out for the ‘victim’ – Lamb’s decade-long pursuit of Bob Kelly ended anticlimactically. She dropped the last charges in 1999. 

  

 

 

What movie may doubt, book surely doesn’t

June 11, 2015

“In [the upcoming movie] Regression, Ethan Hawke plays a detective investigating accusations by a woman against her father. There’s a twist: The father has admitted wrongdoing, though he has no recollection of what happened – and a psychologist is summoned to help him recover his memories....

“The trailer is opaque in its rendering of what crime the father may have committed, but it’s probably meant to echo the Satanic witch hunts that gripped parts of America in the 1980s and early ’90s....  The daughter’s haunting memories include ‘chanting,’ ‘robes’ and a ‘black mask’.... 

“So it’ll be interesting to see [director Alejandro] Amenábar’s take in Regression: Does he present the case as a real, Satanic experience that actually occurs within the world of the story, or will the film be a larger commentary on the horrific fallout of unfounded hysteria?

“Here’s hoping it’s the latter.... We’ll find out when Regression opens in August.”

– From “Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson Battle Satan (Maybe) in the Trailer for Regression” 
by Aisha Harris at Slate (June 10)

 

Also arriving in August – but much less ambiguously: “We Believe The Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s” by Richard Beck. According to a starred review in Publishers Weekly, “Beck marshals extensive research into an absorbing dissection of a panic whose tremors still affect us today.”

  

 

McCrory tires of Sherlock Holmes impersonation

June 4, 2015

“Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday pardoned two half-brothers who were exonerated of murder after spending three decades in prison.

“The governor took nine months to make the decision....”

– From “Governor pardons McCollum, Brown” by Craig Jarvis
in the Raleigh News & Observer  (June 4)

 

Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, both intellectually disabled and now destitute, had been declared innocent last year by a Superior Court judge. But that exoneration, based on DNA evidence from the crime scene, wasn’t good enough for the governor, and even now the statement accompanying his pardon of innocence is lukewarm at best:

“It is difficult for anyone to know for certain what happened the night of Sabrina Buie’s murder.... I know there are differing opinions about this case and who is responsible....”

McCollum and Brown now qualify for $50,000 for each year they were imprisoned, up to a maximum of $750,000 – unless McCrory decides that process demands further investigation as well.

Read more here.

  

 

 

When rationalizing is mistaken for reasoning

June 2, 2015

“Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is ‘motivated reasoning’: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea.

“Psychologists have shown that ‘most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,’ he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our ‘explanation’ of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do – or to believe – anyway.”

– From “The Trouble With Scientists: How one psychologist is tackling human biases in science” by Philip Ball at Nautilus (May 14)

 

“Motivated reasoning” ran amok during the “satanic ritual abuse” day-care panic, resulting in journal articles such as
Stress Responses of Children to Sexual Abuse and Ritualistic Abuse in Day Care Centers” and “Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Cause of Multiple Personality Disorder” – and legitimizing testimony by the prosecution’s expert witnesses.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Nosek has found examples of “motivated reasoning” in claims of recovered memory. 

“In my intro psych course,” he told me, “I have one lecture that is centered around Lawrence Wright's fascinating ‘Remembering Satan’....” [about a 1988 case in Olympia, Wash., involving not only SRA allegations but also false confession].

  

 

 

What might’ve been: Nancy Lamb at the multiplex

May 30, 2015

Ofra Bikel’s eight hours of “Innocence Lost” were surely powerful, but the narrowness of PBS’s audience limited their impact. What if the Little Rascals Day Care case had also inspired a major theatrical release? What if several million moviegoers had watched the dramatic nobody-dunnit even as the real-life Edenton Seven were languishing in jail or standing  trial?

For a brief moment, that seemed possible. 

Kurt Luedtke, screenwriter for the ‘80s hits “Out of Africa” and “Absence of Malice,” was outraged after seeing the initial “Innocence Lost” in 1991. “You can’t hold people that long without presenting the evidence,” he told the Charlotte Observer.
Now retired and living in Michigan, Luedtke recalls his “indignation mounting and [thinking] I had to do something about the preposterousness of what was going on....”

Alas, his idea apparently made it no further than a preliminary meeting in New York with Bikel and “Frontline” founder David Fanning: “I can’t remember why we didn’t go forward; maybe I had another job.”

  

 

 

 

The imaginations run amok weren’t the children’s

May 27, 2015

“Here’s an observation from the [“satanic ritual abuse” day-care] panic that I don’t think has been fully explored: These kids didn’t make up these stories.

“In this case [of Fran and Dan Keller] 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.”

– From “The ongoing legacy of the great satanic sex abuse panic” by Radley Balko in the Washington Post (May 26)

 

Is there something about “satanic ritual abuse” cases that knocks courts off their game? Although the Texas Court of Appeals manages to overturn (at last!) the child sexual abuse charges against day-care operators Fran and Dan Keller, it can’t bring itself to acknowledge their actual innocence. Thanks to Judge Cheryl Johnson for her clear-eyed concurring opinion noting that “This was a witch hunt from the beginning.”

  

 

Prosecution’s doctors ‘medicalized Satan’

May 25, 2015

“Investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith has spent years examining the medical and legal industry that has arisen to promote its belief that vicious baby-shaking by enraged adults has killed thousands of infants, the subject of the new documentary The Syndrome....

“We've been here before. The Syndrome rewinds to the 1980s when the panic on behalf of children was Satanic Ritual Abuse, a national frenzy in which prosecutors and juries sent daycare employees to jail for years for crimes as implausible as cutting off a gorilla's finger while at the zoo, then flying the children over Mexico to molest them.

“The media leapt on these accusations. So, too, did the doctors. ‘They medicalized Satan,’ says Goldsmith. ‘[Doctors would] go into court and say, “Yeah, she's got a Satanic Ritual Abuse notch in her hymen” ’....

“Satanic Ritual Abuse and Shaken Baby Syndrome are more similar than they sound. In both cases, the expert speaks for the victim. The discredited Satanic Ritual Abuse cases proved that adults were able to pressure children to swear to all sorts of falsehoods.... The alleged victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome are either dead or too young to explain what happened. Thus a doctor's educated opinion becomes crucial – even if that doctor is adhering to incorrect ‘proof’ of abuse.”

– From “Is Shaken Baby Syndrome the New Satanic Panic?” by Amy Nicholson in LA Weekly (April 9, 2015)

 

  

 

 

Investigation without end, injustice without end?

May 8, 2015

“A new investigation by the governor into ‘culpability’ has some concerned that he may be caving to the political pressure inherent in the pardon process – particularly given the exhaustive review and judicial imprimatur that the [Henry] McCollum and [Leon] Brown cases have already received.

“The original prosecutor, Joe Freeman Britt, has publicly opposed any pardon for the men. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to a pardon, and there in no doubt in my mind that they’re not entitled to compensation for the taxpayers,’ he said in the March [16] New York Times story.

“But attorneys involved in the case and other who work in this area say that the governor’s work has already been done for him.

“ ‘A district attorney would not have consented to their innocence, and a judge would not have put innocence in their order, if there was any level of culpability,’ said Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence....”

– From “Begging for a pardon: Why some of the wrongfully convicted could go penniless” by Sharon McCloskey at NC Policy Watch (May 6)

 

Now that Gov. McCrory has returned from the Global Gourmet Games, perhaps he is at last bringing his ‘culpability’ investigation to an end. But the question remains: Why did he open it in the first place? Why was it appropriate to add eight months to North Carolina’s brutal mistreatment of McCollum and Brown? Surely, it wasn’t an effort to satisfy the notorious Joe Freeman Britt! 

  

 

How could anyone doubt ‘shoes made of baby skin’?

May 5, 2015

“Its members are, it’s claimed, drawn mainly from a school and church in Hampstead [a North London suburb]. They are said to wear shoes made of baby skin, to dance with the skulls of dead babies and to sexually abuse young children. But the [satanic ritual] cult doesn’t exist. The claims are, according to a High Court Judge, ‘baseless’ and those who have sought to perpetrate them are ‘evil’....

“Why, after a police inquiry and a family court judgment which unequivocally rubbished the notion of satanic abuse in Hampstead, are the allegations still proliferating on the Internet and being spread all over the world? We hear from the supposed cult members who have had their personal details and photographs published online and received death threats. And we ask about the welfare of the two children at the centre of it all who were coerced into fabricating the fantastical story....”

– From “The Satanic Cult That Wasn't” by Melanie Abbott on BBC Radio (April 23)

 

This half hour of BBC coverage skillfully demolishes every iota of the Hampstead claims, but of course facts aren’t what engage the eagerly gullible. Since video of the 8- and 9-year-old siblings telling their concocted horror stories was uploaded onto YouTube, it has been watched more than 4 million times.

  

 

‘So, Paula, do YOU think I should pardon them?’

April 29, 2015

“Wednesday marks the 230th day that Governor Pat McCrory has refused to grant a pardon of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, the two Robeson County men who both spent 31 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit.

“The two men, both mentally disabled and struggling to pay their bills, need the pardon from McCrory to be eligible for financial compensation from the state for the years they were wrongly incarcerated. McCrory received the petition September 11 of last year.

“McCrory has been busy of course, most recently taking an unannounced trip to Los Angeles where he appeared on a panel at conference [and hobnobbed] with Paula Abdul and other celebrities at an event called the Global Gourmet Games....

“Meanwhile Henry McCollum and Leon Brown are still waiting for justice from McCrory and still struggling to pay their water bill....”

– From “Day 230 of Gov. McCrory denying justice to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown”
by Chris Fitzsimon at the Progressive Pulse (April 19)

 

It’s not just Junior Chandler and the Edenton Seven who suffer from the indifference of elected officials who hold the power to at last do right by them.

To withhold compensation from the hapless McCollum and Brown seems especially heartless. If McCrory has an explanation for his nearly eight months of foot-dragging, he’s not revealing it – unless maybe he spilled to his tablemates at the Global Gourmet Games....

 

Kids say the darndest things... eventually

April 24, 2015

“As was made clear repeatedly upon testimony by experts, the very first reports of the children were the ones that would be most critical in determining whether sexual abuse had indeed occurred. Yet in the first interviews, the children said almost nothing of any interest with regard to sexual abuse, and the police officer who conducted these hearings destroyed all of her notes and all of her tapes of what happened before the case went to court. She was approached by several of the mothers initially because she had taken a short course in investigating cases of child abuse.

“Officer [Brenda] Toppin was crucial to the whole process because she was the one who escalated the case from a minor complaint by one parent into a case of massive sexual abuse of dozens of children by scores of day-care workers.”

– From “Understanding The Crucible: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents” by Claudia Durst Johnson and Vernon Johnson (1998)

 

 

 

  


 

Lack of DNA evidence opens way for injustice

April 18, 2015

“DNA testing has been used 329 times now to prove the innocence of people wrongly convicted of a crime. But what happens when there is no DNA evidence to prove someone’s innocence? What happens when there is only his word, and the mounded doubts of the team that prosecuted and convicted him? And what happens when – despite growing certainty that it has imprisoned the wrong man for more than 20 years – the Commonwealth of Virginia stands poised to keep him locked up, possibly forever?

“Of all the maddening stories of wrongful convictions, Michael McAlister’s may be one of the worst. For starters, he has been in prison for 29 years for an attempted rape he almost certainly did not commit....”

 – From “This Man Deserves a Pardon” by Dahlia Lithwick at Slate (April 13)

 

Michael McAlister’s story surely qualifies as “one of the worst,” but forgive me if I think Junior Chandler – coincidentally now serving his 29th year of imprisonment – has suffered every bit as much injustice.  And in McAlister’s case at least a crime was actually committed, just not by him.
 


 

Death noted: Little Rascals judge Marsh McLelland

April 13, 2015

D. Marsh McLelland, judge in the trials of Little Rascals defendants Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, died last month in Burlington. He was 94.

This laudatory obituary in the Greensboro News & Record barely mentions the most consequential case in McLelland’s career – “He was brought out of retirement by the state’s chief justice to hear the Little Rascals Day Care child sex abuse case....” – and this one in the Burlington Times-News mentions it not at all.

Had McLelland stayed retired, the prosecution of the Edenton Seven might well have been derailed early on.

The judge originally assigned to the case, L. Bradford Tillery, stepped down under pressure from Deputy Attorney General Bill Hart. Mark Montgomery, Bob Kelly’s appellate attorney, explains why:

“Hart did not like the way Tillery was handling the case.  The final straw was when Tillery ordered Hart to turn over the State’s interviews of those kids who were not the subject of indictments.  He did not order them given to the defense, as he should have done, but Tillery was going to look through them himself.  If he had, he would have seen that most of the kids at the day care, including Hart’s adoptive daughter, had said nothing happened and the jury would have heard about that.

“To prevent that, Hart filed motions accusing Tillery of being biased against the State. Rather than punishing Hart, Tillery took himself out of the case to avoid any appearance of partiality.  Enter McLelland. 

“Because Tillery had already ordered the interviews turned over to the court, that was a done deal.  But McLelland never looked at them.  I stumbled across them in the exhibit room of the courthouse and informed the Court of Appeals in my brief.  The failure of the State to turn over to the defense the interviews of kids who said nothing happened was one of the grounds for a new trial for Bob.”

Tillery clearly was stung by Hart’s ploy: “I have served as a judge of Superior Court for over 20 years, and I never found it necessary to take such a step.... Neither have I ever been made to feel before that one side or the other considered me to be not only an adversary but also fair game .... for reckless assertions.”

If only Tillery had responded not by resigning but by sanctioning Hart for withholding evidence.


 

Prosecutors claimed WHAT happened here?

April 6, 2015

A team from the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic recently traveled to Buncombe and Madison counties to collect documents from court clerks’ offices, to interview witnesses and to inspect locations where Junior Chandler allegedly abused children who rode his day-care bus.

Billy Chandler, Junior’s brother, and Clayton Rice, his lifelong friend, guided the Duke investigators (and me) along Junior’s daily route. The narrow, twisting backroads led us to the sites along the French Broad River where prosecutors claimed Junior had repeatedly committed the most bizarre sexual crimes imaginable.

The photo at the right shows a typical vantage. It has always seemed incredible to me that Junior – as described in Mark Montgomery’s amended petition for writ of certiorari – “would drive off his route to a parking area next to the French Broad River, strip the clothes off the toddlers, troop the naked children down to the river, put them on a rowboat, proceed to insert various objects into their anuses and vaginas, bring them back to the bus, put their clothes back on and deliver them home.”

Actually visiting and walking around the supposed crime scenes, which are completely open to neighbors and passersby, only reinforces my impression: The allegations against Junior are simply inconceivable.  

So where do things stand as Junior Chandler approaches his 29th year in prison? Clinic co-director Theresa Newman provided this cautious update: “The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic has spent the past few months studying the file passed to them by previous post-conviction counsel, researching the developments in the relevant medical and psychological science since the mid-1980s, and otherwise trying to master this complicated and complex case. We are now moving into the next phase of our typical investigation....”

The title of Newman’s illuminating TEDx talk at Elon University couldn’t be more apt: “Waiting is a Beast.”


 

 


 
 


The Little Rascals case in brief

In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent's complaint about punishment given her child.

Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth "Betsy" Kelly, Robert "Bob" Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.

Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.

By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina's longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did.

Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.

Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series "Frontline." Although "Innocence Lost" did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.

With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.

This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.