“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
‘Black helicopters’ over Edenton? Sure, why not?
Feb. 27, 2015
“.... A social worker from North Carolina informed the group [the Society for the Investigation, Treatment and Prevention of Ritual and Cult Abuse] that in the day-care sex-abuse case she was investigating, she thought she remembered the kids talking about black helicopters. She said she would look into it."
– From “Conspiracy
Theories and Paranoia: Notes from a Mind-Control Conference”
by Evan Harrington in the Skeptical Inquirer (September-October 1996)
The “ritual and cult abuse” conference took place in Dallas in March 1995,
several years after the trials of Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson (and just a
couple of months before the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned their
convictions). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the social worker chatting with
Dr. Harrington was a prosecution therapist still eagerly accumulating and
broadcasting claims ... this
Can we cope with seeing wrongful convictions?
Feb. 20, 2015
“Exonerations, which were once exceedingly rare, have become regular features of the American justice system. The National Registry of Exonerations records 1,535 exonerations nationwide [including Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson] since records began in 1989....
“The 125 wrongful convictions thrown out in 2014... might seem paltry compared to the estimated 1 million felony convictions per year, but the number of wrongful convictions is likely far higher. Many jurisdictions don’t devote the same level of resources towards exonerations that North Carolina does [with its Innocence Inquiry Commission], and even then the process can be achingly slow.
“For a justice system that exalts due process and the presumption of innocence, any wrongful conviction represents a serious breakdown of justice. Even a handful of high-profile wrongful convictions can ripple throughout the public consciousness, undermining confidence in the system. ‘The country is having to psychically cope with conclusive evidence that we make, with some regularity, errors in criminal trial outcomes,’ said [Mary Kelly Tate, director of the University of Richmond law school’s Institute for Actual Innocence].”
– From “Guilty, Then Proven Innocent” by Matt Ford at The Atlantic (Feb. 9)
The shocking ease of installing ‘lost memories’
Feb. 13, 2015
“Psychologists terminated a study [of 70 students at a Canadian university] that showed the ease of implanting false memories of committing terrible, violent crimes in the recent past – because some subjects couldn't be convinced that they hadn't committed the crime after they were told the truth.”
– From “Police interrogation techniques generate false memories
of committing crimes” by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing (Feb. 9)
More on this recent study from Sarah Barmak at the Toronto Star:
“If subjects said they couldn’t remember the false event, questioners reassured them they would be able to retrieve their ‘lost memories’ if they tried hard enough. If they began to ‘remember,’ experimenters asked for more detail. Do you recall any images? How did you feel? Visualize what it might have been like, they said, and the memory will come back to you....”
“Lost memories,” of course, were the fool’s gold mined so relentlessly by
the prosecution therapists in the Little Rascals Day Care case. Remarkably,
it took only three 40-minute sessions for the Canadian researchers to
corrupt the memories of fully 70 percent of their college-age subjects – the
Little Rascals children required
months of implantation!
Salem to Edenton was a road heavily traveled
Feb. 9, 2015
The Little Rascals Day Care case has often been likened to the Salem Witch Trials, but this lengthy list from “Understanding The Crucible: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents” by Claudia Durst Johnson and Vernon Johnson (1998) drives home the point:
• Both involved children as accusers.
• Convictions were determined almost solely on the basis of the children's testimony.
• Everything escalated rapidly – the number of children involved, the number of the accused, and the different kinds of charges.
• The minds of the children were in both cases manipulated by adults.
• Charges were instigated by adults who held grudges against the accused.
• There was an absence of corroborating evidence.
• “Fanciful” testimony was regarded seriously. In Salem, it was spectral evidence. In the twentieth-century cases, it included children’s stories of spaceships, sharks, and ritual murder.
• Community hysteria arose from the feeling that evil – witches and sex abusers – had access to their children.
• “Poppets” or dolls were involved. In the Salem trials, little dolls were immediately seized upon as poppets used by witches to pierce with pins with the object of inflicting torture. In sexual abuse cases, “anatomically correct” dolls were used by psychologists to coach details from the children.
• There were charges that satanic rituals were conducted.
• The prosecution showed a single-minded determination, by threat or bribe, to get the accused to confess.
• The prosecution showed a single-minded determination, by threat or bribe, to get children to disclose more and more details of misconduct without regard to truth.
McMartin therapy victim: ‘I lived in fabricated fear’
Feb. 5, 2015
“I was involved in this [McMartin Preschool] case. I remember getting dropped off at court-ordered therapy. I don’t remember the sessions, but I have seen the macabre pictures I drew. I have read the accounts the therapist wrote down for me as I detailed the abuse.
“It is my belief, after years of treatment centers and therapy, that nothing physical happened to me.... Mentally, well, that’s a different story. How about paying attention to the kids that were scarred from this therapy? Do you think that just because there was most likely no physical abuse that we didn’t still suffer? Eating disorders, alcoholism, depression, anxiety....
“I lived in fabricated fear. I have a vivid memory of one teacher telling us that she would come to our house in the middle of the night and shoot our parents if we ever told them what happened. This memory, which I now assume was a dream, was the one thing that kept me questioning for years whether or not this happened. So, while I now believe that the memories were unintentionally implanted, I still lived the nightmare through stories and drawings...”
– From “The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse” in the New York Times (March 9, 2014)
Although I linked to Clyde Haberman’s thorough and perceptive piece when it appeared, I’m just now noticing that among the 166 reader comments was this one above from a “therapy...scarred” McMartin child. Unfortunately, it was posted anonymously – so continues the long wait for now-grown child-witnesses (other than Kyle Zirpolo) ready to go public with their recollections.
Are mistaken prosecutors silenced by shame?
Jan. 31, 2015
“ ‘You need to try to rectify whatever error you made,’ says Santa Clara County, California, Special Assistant District Attorney David Angel. ‘But it needs to really shift from this kind of highly moralistic, punitive view. Maybe it’s a cause for embarrassment, but it’s not a cause for shame.’
“He believes prosecutors have drawn the short straw in language, noting that defense attorneys who err are called ‘ineffective’ and judges are ‘reversed,’ while prosecutorial error alone is labeled ‘misconduct,’ with all the attendant negative connotations.
“Angel believes that most prosecutors are willing to admit to mistakes but that ‘people are very hesitant to admit to something that’s called “misconduct,” because it makes you feel like you did something morally wrong.’ ”
– From “Why
can’t law enforcement admit their mistakes?”
by Sue Russell at Pacific Standard (via Salon, Oct. 21, 2012)
The concept becomes trickier, however, the longer prosecutors cling to their
fallacious and costly narratives. At some point – oh, let’s say 25 years
later – might “mistakes” have toxified into “misconduct”?
Did jurors really believe ‘poop in the spaghetti’?
Jan. 25, 2015
Q: You said that Mr. Bob made spaghetti at the day care.... Now, when did Mr. Bob say that there was poop in the spaghetti?
A: After we, um, ate it.
Q: All right. Did -- did you ever have to eat poop at the day care?
Q: Okay. Did anybody try and make you eat poop at the day care?
A: Mr. Bob.
Q: Tell me about it.
A: I don’t remember it.
Q: You don’t remember it?
Q: Well, how do you know Mr. Bob tried to do it?
Q: Did somebody tell you about it?
Q: Okay. Well, then tell me how Mr. Bob tried to make you eat poop.
A: Um, he told me, um, to eat it.Q: Okay. Where was it?
A: I forgot.
Q: You forgot. Well, was it in Ms. Shelly's room?
Q: Was it in the kitchen?
Q: Okay. Well, did he make other kids eat poop while you were there?
Q: Okay. Well, um, what happened when they ate it?
A: I don’t know.
– From defense attorney Jeffrey Miller’s cross-examination of a child witness in the trial of Bob Kelly
This exchange represents only a tiny fraction of the 7-year-old girl’s testimony, which stretched over two days and included similarly incoherent references to Kelly and other defendants having raped her, urinated in her mouth, threatened to kill her parents, sodomized her with pencils and sewing needles, taken her on boat and truck rides, forced her to witness the killing and burial of babies and small animals.....
How funny and trivial such childish imaginings would seem, if only the
jury’s gullibility hadn’t sent Kelly to prison for six years. “The children
were convincing,” insisted
rogue juror Dennis T. Ray.
Day-care cases rooted in ‘sense of powerlessness’?
Jan. 17, 2015
Q: Do you have a better understanding of why people act the way they do in certain situations?
A: ....Whenever the safety of children is perceived to be in question, we run the risk of responding with emotion rather than reason. Certainly in Salem [where three of her ancestors were accused witches] that was the case. And look at the so-called “satanic ritual abuse” pre-school phenomenon in the early 1980s, which is now seen to have been a tremendous miscarriage of justice. Calls for moderation are dismissed with the assertion that the children have to come first -- which, of course, they should.
“But it's also tempting to read these experiences as expressive of a deeper anxiety about childrearing in an uncertain world, with no guarantees of a good outcome. I feel that it comes from a sense of powerlessness that can't be expressed elsewhere....”
– From an interview with Katherine Howe, author of “Conversion,”
a novel based on a mysterious 2012 outbreak of tics and seizures
among teenage girls in upstate New York,
in the Daily News of Batavia, New York (Aug. 23, 2014)
District attorney to reexamine Little Rascals – or not?
Jan. 11, 2015
Before he turned back a challenge from Little Rascals prosecutor Nancy Lamb, incumbent District Attorney Andrew Womble had given me an inkling of hope he might consider revisiting the case.
This is from a letter I sent him on Sept. 11:
“In your Q&A with the Outer Banks Voice... you recalled ‘a pervasive mindset that the job of the district attorney was to prosecute all cases and to gain convictions. The Duke lacrosse case sort of changed that in my mind; the role of the district attorney is to seek justice.’
“Your thoughtful response leads me to ask how in retrospect you view the prosecution of Bob Kelly, Dawn Wilson and the rest of the Edenton Seven. Is Little Rascals a case you would have chosen to take to court, much less extend over eight years?
“Johnson Britt, Robeson County DA, recently disavowed the state’s allegations against two defendants cleared by DNA testing. In addition to the North Carolina Court of Appeals’ robust overturning of the verdicts against Kelly and Wilson, a quarter-century of medical and social science research has made ever more clear the innocence of the Edenton Seven....
“As district attorney, would you be willing to voice your own unofficial exoneration of the defendants in the First District’s most notorious prosecution?”
When Womble didn’t respond, I turned to Holly Koerber-Audette, his campaign consultant. Two weeks before the election she offered encouragement: “I am more than happy to talk to him about your request. I have followed the case and your excellent efforts for a long time now.... You have my word, I will discuss it with him.”
My several follow-up emails have gone unanswered. Whatever the DA’s
response, I’d be glad to see it.
View from UK: ‘Whole culture...has become hysterical’
Jan. 3, 2015
“Lurid tales of children being sexually abused, of animals being ritually slaughtered and babies being bred for sacrifice, in bizarre black magic ceremonies by cults of devil-worshipping Satanists first surfaced in America in the early 1980s. The allegations of what became known as Satanic ritual abuse soon spread to Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 1990s....
“As early as 1994 a UK government-funded investigation concluded there was no evidence Satanic ritual abuse existed. Yet despite the continuing absence of evidence, anywhere in the world, a minority of child care professionals including police officers and social workers, and adult psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists persist in the belief that Satanic ritual abuse exists....”
– From a synopsis of remarks by
Rosie Waterhouse, a journalist and academic
who has been the foremost investigator of supposed “satanic ritual abuse”
in Great Britain for the past 24 years
If my Google News feed is any measure, however anecdotal, such British claims may now outnumber those from the States. I asked Dr. Waterhouse to expound:
“There is a hard core of ‘believers’ who continue to spread the myth and very alarmingly seem to have influence among authorities and the media....
“The whole culture now about allegations of child sex abuse – from Satanic to dozens of police and official investigations and inquiries into non-Satanic ‘historic’ allegations, including against high-profile people including celebs and politicians – has become hysterical....
“Setting aside the Satanic abuse allegations – which I believe to be the most spurious, because as far as I am aware there has never been produced any physical, forensic, corroborating evidence, anywhere in the world – the historic non-Satanic allegations which have gone to trial have resulted in some convictions and some acquittals. Of other allegations which have not yet come to court, some may be true. Others I sense are the product of trawls for alleged survivors and witnesses to come forward, often with the prospect of compensation, and are false....
“The tidal wave of allegations is overwhelming. I really am depressed by it
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.