“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

Not everyone was moved by HBO’s McMartin drama 

March 31, 2015

“...The watershed event marking the shift in public opinion on these [“satanic ritual abuse” day care] cases was the HBO airing of ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ [watchable here on YouTube] in May 1995, wherein Ray Buckey, the child-molesting villain of the McMartin trial, was recast as the victim of a hysterical conspiracy theory.

“Five years earlier, no major television network would have dared question the infallibility of the testimony of ravished, innocent babes. A network like HBO is closely attuned to shifts in the public mood.

“Such TV dramas and feature films are generally more likely to respond to existing trends in public opinion on controversial issues than to break new ground, and so this docudrama marked a sort of closure on the issue in the public imagination, though the judicial system cannot shift direction so quickly.”

– From “The Metanarrative of Suspicion in Late Twentieth-Century America” by Sandra Baringer (2004)

 

Eighteen days before HBO broadcast “Indictment,” the North Carolina Court of Appeals had overturned the convictions of Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, but Kelly’s torture at the hands of the state was far from over: A year later he would be charged with raping a young girl outside the day care in 1987. Was prosecutor Nancy Lamb unable to “shift direction so quickly” – or simply unwilling?


 

 

It’s a long way from Duke to Avery-Mitchell Correctional 

March 21, 2015

I spent several hours Friday at Duke University Law School listening to experts detail “Evolving Trends in Forensic Science.”

Fascinating. Topics ranged from the effects of sleep deprivation on jurors’ decision-making to the use of cell tower evidence to determine suspect location. But I was wedged into an auditorium otherwise full of lawyers to hear pediatrician Cynthia Brown and defense attorneys Mark Montgomery and Lisa Miles outline the latest standards for medical exams in cases of suspected child abuse. The good news – if you’re being wrongfully prosecuted in 2015 – is that those standards have become dramatically more specific and sophisticated.

If, however, you were wrongfully prosecuted in 1987, then the fruits of that scientific progress remain maddeningly out of reach.  Waiting for me when I returned home Friday was a letter from Junior Chandler:

“April 15 will be 28 yrs – nearly half my life, all because of lies when I did no crime. It’s a shame & disgrace to the whole N.C. justice system, not only to do this but never to be willing to say they were wrong....”


 

It wasn’t only defendants who suffered wrongfully 

March 17, 2015

“Warren Twiddy, 68, father of defendant Betsy Kelly, said he’s been ‘shunned, blocked out’ by some residents and nearly run out of his church.”

– From “Trial rips fabric of community” by Mark Mayfield
in USA Today (March 20, 1992)

 

“Twiddy sold his insurance business and exhausted his retirement savings to pay his daughter’s legal fees. Old friends, he says, won’t even say hello on the street. Clients canceled policies after his daughter was indicted.”

– From  “Town’s pain is revived by TV film” by Andrea Stone
in USA Today (July 22, 1993)

 

“Twiddy admits... some bitterness toward his neighbors, who ignored him at church and at the country club.

“ ‘Before, the bulletin board was full with places we were supposed to be up ’til Christmas,’ he said. ‘After this, nothing, buddy.’ ”

– From “Talk of new trial makes Edenton shudder” by Carol D. Leonnig
in the Charlotte Observer (Sept. 10, 1995)

 

“Our need to matter and our need to belong are as fundamental as our need to eat and breathe. Therefore ostracism – rejection, silence, exclusion – is one of the most powerful punishments that one person can inflict on another.

“Brain scans have shown that this rejection is actually experienced as physical pain, and that this pain is experienced whether those that reject us are close friends or family or total strangers, and whether the act is overt exclusion or merely looking away....”

– From a delanceyplace.com summary of “The Pain of Exclusion”
by Kipling D. Williams in Scientific American (January/February 2011)

 

The misery caused by wrongful prosecution of the Little Rascals case extended far beyond courtrooms and jail cells. Defendants’ family members such as Betsy Kelly’s father endured many years in a hell of ostracism.

Warren Twiddy died in 2012. He was 89.

 

 

‘Ritual abuse’ therapists to scientists: Drop dead 

March 13, 2015

“In this this arena of Recovered Memory Therapy and treatment of DID, therapists will simply imitate what sounds exciting or innovative without assessing the scientific value of the procedure. At times there appears to be little awareness of or concern with the professional literature.

“At a [1995] conference sponsored by a group dealing with ritual and cult abuse, there was an aversion to and a quick dismissal of major studies, including [those by David] Ceci....

“It is troubling that an entire panel had never heard of his well-known research.”

– From “The Death of Psychotherapy: From Freud to Alien Abductions”
by Donald A. Eisner (2000)

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to make ‘facts and science ultimately irrelevant’ 

March 8, 2015

“As public debate rages about issues like immunization, Obamacare, and same-sex marriage, many people try to use science to bolster their arguments. And since it’s becoming easier to test and establish facts – whether in physics, psychology, or policy – many have wondered why bias and polarization have not been defeated. When people are confronted with facts, such as the well-established safety of immunization, why do these facts seem to have so little effect?

“Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined a slippery way by which people get away from facts that contradict their beliefs.... [They] reframe an issue in untestable ways. This makes potential important facts and science ultimately irrelevant to the issue....

“These experiments show that when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter. In scientific terms, their beliefs become less ‘falsifiable’ because they can no longer be tested scientifically for verification or refutation....”

– From “Why People ‘Fly from Facts’ ” by Troy Campbell and
Justin Friesen in Scientific American (March 3)

 

And what allegations could be more “untestable” than pure fantasy? As Junior Chandler knows too well, “....It’s extremely hard to get help to prove my innocence when there isn’t a crime committed to begin with.”

 

 

 

 

‘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 one perhaps.

 

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. 


 

 

 

 

 


 
 


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.