“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
Rare words of prosecutorial remorse
July 5, 2015
“In March, A. M. Stroud III, lead prosecutor at trial, wrote a remorseful article in The Shreveport Times, declaring, ‘Glenn Ford was an innocent man,’ taking responsibility for a rush to judgment and arguing for the abolition of the death penalty.
“ ‘I apologize to Glenn Ford for all the misery I have caused him and his family,’ Mr. Stroud wrote. ‘I apologize to the family of [the murder victim] for giving them the false hope of some closure. I apologize to the members of the jury for not having all of the story that should have been disclosed to them. I apologize to the court in not having been more diligent in my duty to ensure that proper disclosures of any exculpatory evidence had been provided to the defense.’
“He concluded: ‘I end with the hope that providence will have more mercy for me than I showed Glenn Ford. But I am also sobered by the realization that I certainly am not deserving of it.’ ”
– From “Glenn
Ford, Spared Death Row, Dies at 65”
by Bruce Weber in the New York Times (July 2)
By the time Mr. Ford was exonerated and released in 2014, he had served 29 years in Louisiana’s Angola prison. His freedom was short-lived: In less than 16 months he would be dead from lung cancer.
Prosecutor Stroud deserves credit for his humble and agonized apology,
however late. His words could just as truthfully have come from the mouths
of H.P. Williams, Bill Hart and Nancy Lamb – but of course they haven’t.
British lawyers see payday in ritual abuse claims
July 2, 2015
“The notion of satanic ritual abuse was dismissed as ‘utter nonsense’ by Mrs. Justice Pauffley in care proceedings in the family court at [London’s] Royal Courts of Justice in March. Two children were coerced by their mother and her boyfriend into alleging horrendous sexual abuse and murder of babies by their father and others in a secret satanic cult.... ‘There was no satanic or other cult at which babies were murdered and children sexually abused,’ the judge said. The claims were ‘fabricated’ and ‘baseless.’
“But the total lack of physical evidence does not deter the compensation chasers. At a child abuse training day in London last week run by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, delegates were told that satanic abuse was a reality. Barrister Lee Moore – a self-proclaimed satanic abuse survivor – and solicitor Peter Garsden, who are respectively the past and current president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, ‘kept going on about satanic ritual abuse,’ according to a barrister who was present.
“She went on: ‘Peter Garsden told the assembled band of lawyers that SRA was prevalent and would be accepted as such, “given time.” The point is that at a conference of ‘cutting-edge’ personal injury lawyers specialising in child abuse, only one delegate was prepared to challenge these SRA proponents.’ ”
One difference on our side of the pond: The “compensation chasers” in American ritual abuse cases were much less likely to be lawyers than therapists.
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:
“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
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
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.
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
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  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.
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.