“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
‘That sorry judge should have done something’?
July 15, 2014
“I realize I’m a little flip when I say 80 percent of the evidence is trash, but it is.
“I thought sooner or later some editorialist was going to write, ‘That sorry judge should have done something.’ And yet if I stopped it, it would have been a problem in an appeal....”
– Judge Marsh McLelland, in an interview published April 1, 1992,
in the Greensboro News & Record, shortly after
the jury began deliberations in the trial of Bob Kelly
Given that McLelland had been overseeing the Kelly case for more than 17 months – and still had Dawn Wilson’s trial ahead of him – I suppose he deserved to grumble a bit about the tedium.
But what an odd comment about wanting to avoid “a problem in an appeal” – did he believe only the defense was responsible for producing “trash” evidence?
Echoes of Little Rascals in 2014 race for DA
July 15, 2014
Here’s the big picture from the latest campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections:
More provocative, however, are the details.
It’s not surprising that Lamb’s donors include such loyal Little Rascals alumnae as parents Jane Mabry ($50) and Lynne Layton ($250) and therapist Judith Abbott ($200).
But at least one member of the prosecutorial alliance seems to have defected:
Yes, that’s Lamb’s former boss, H.P. Williams Jr., pitching in $250 to her
‘I was aware of the possibility of childish fantasy....’
July 11, 2014
“.... As you might imagine, I had not had reason to think about the Little Rascals case until your email arrived. Yes, I was very interested in the case at the time, but had no role or authority to intervene. [See governor’s 1991 response to letter writers.] The arrests and charges were highly publicized, as were the proceedings of the trial, upon which the two accused were convicted. So, like most citizens, I felt a compulsion to follow the case, at least insofar as the news coverage.
“My recollection is that both the horrible accusations and the contrary indications of coached and imaginative testimony of the children were featured in the coverage.... Being very familiar with Arthur Miller’s brilliant drama, ‘The Crucible,’ I was aware of the possibility of childish fantasy passing as falsely condemning testimony. From a distance, most readers probably shared the concern, ‘What if it were true?’
“I do not recall whether the defense attorneys contacted my office in an appeal for clemency in 1991-1992. Had they done so, they would have been advised that my practice was to let the appellate courts complete their judicial review before considering clemency. This was complete in 1995 when the NC Supreme Court declined to review the finding by the Court of Appeals of trial error, at which time there would be no cause for Governor Hunt to intervene. I have great respect for the judgment and integrity of then Chief Justice Burleigh Mitchell, and that would settle the legal principles of the matter for me.
“I can only wonder what conclusion I might have reached had the appeal for clemency been properly before me. My approach in such cases was to meet separately with advocates on both sides, without restricting the nature or style of what they had to say. I would make my decision based on corroborated evidence and the trial record, without following its standards for disqualifying some evidence. I gave attention to two main standards: (a) whether the punishment was suited to the nature of the crime, and (b) whether there was doubt as to the guilt of the person convicted....
“I believe your cause is to persuade the Governor to issue a Pardon of Innocence for Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson. It may be difficult to produce exculpatory evidence several decades after the events. You did not say whether Mr. Kelly and/or Ms. Wilson wish to return to that gauntlet, considering the degree to which they have restored their lives. If they do, it would my hope that Governor McCrory and his counsel would weigh the two guidelines cited above, although no Governor is bound in clemency matters by any precedent of his predecessors. While it can be difficult to prove a negative, it would help your cause if there were former accusers now in their thirties who have recanted the accusations of their childhood. Otherwise, the appellate finding of procedural error alone might not be sufficient.”
– From a letter from former Gov. Jim Martin responding to my question
about his recollections of the Little Rascals Day Care case
As welcome as a gubernatorial pardon would be, my hopes for the Edenton Seven are more modest: a “statement of innocence” from the governor or attorney general similar to that given the defendants in the Duke lacrosse case.
If only the Little Rascals prosecutors had been as familiar with “The Crucible” as was the governor....
Alarmed ‘Frontline’ viewers turned to governor
July 10, 2014
“Thank you for your letter expressing your concerns about the prosecution of the Little Rascals Day Care Center personnel in Chowan County. Although this matter is outside my jurisdiction as head of the executive branch, I appreciate your interest in the administration of justice in North Carolina....
“I would suggest that it might be appropriate to wait until after the trial when all the evidence has been heard before reaching conclusions about the correctness of actions taken by [District Attorney H.P. Williams] and the court.
“North Carolina has had a long history of evenhandedness in the administration of justice, and I am confident that the tradition continues to be in effect. Nonetheless, if you wish to express your concerns directly to the District Attorney, his address is.....”
– From Gov.
response to PBS viewers appalled
by the first installment of “Innocence Lost” (May 7, 1991)
Last week I found in the State Archives in Raleigh about a dozen letters beseeching Gov. Martin to look into the case. Although significantly less heated than those addressing the mayor of Edenton, the letters expressed alarm about the plight of the Edenton Seven:
“As a member of Amnesty International, I write letters to officials of foreign governments, many of them without democratic governments or traditions, urging them to look into the cases of people being unjustly treated....[In Edenton] one fact cannot be ignored: Defendants have been held in jail without a trial for close to two years....”
– Laura J. Reid, New York City
“I was disturbed by the incredibly high bonds recommended by the District Attorney and allowed by the Judge.... I would hope that you will personally intervene to request judicial review of the bonds set....”
– Steven J. Edwards, Decatur, Ga.
“As a former teacher, I can assure you that children – especially young children – can easily be coaxed, cajoled or pressured into say just about anything an adult might wish them to say.”
– S.T. Reynolds, Woodland, Calif.
I have asked Gov. Martin, now retired and living at Lake Norman, to discuss his views of the Little Rascals case both then and now. I’ll be posting his response soon.
Convictions overturned, judge angrily exited
July 5, 2014
“The Burlington judge who has presided over the the Little Rascals Day Care Center case since 1990 resigned in disgust the day after the state Supreme Court refused to review [the overturning of] two convictions.
“D. Marsh McLelland, a retired Superior Court judge, said in a letter dated Sept. 8 that the court’s refusal to review the cases ‘is legally and morally reprehensible.’
“McLelland’s letter to Chief Justice Burley Mitchell said the refusal to review a Court of Appeals order for a new trial raised the term technicality to new heights....”
– From “Judge quits Little Rascals case” from the Associated Press (Sept. 22, 1995)
I imagine that the “technicality” comment was from a direct quote, although I haven’t been able to find either McLelland’s original letter or a more substantial account. It’s no wonder he felt humiliated – the Court of Appeals decision had laid bare his indifference to the rights of the defendants.
Regardless, McLelland’s resignation proved irrelevant, as prosecutors decided not to retry Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson.
Portrait of a town haunted by hindsight
June 29, 2014
“[The Little Rascals Day Care center] is red brick, with plate glass windows on the front. The two-story structure is located on East Eden Street, amid mostly modest one-family homes, oaks, azaleas and crape myrtles, just a few blocks from the beautiful bay and downtown.
“The neighborhood is quiet now, but as the case unfolded during the last two years, journalists from time to time set upon the area, seeking eyewitnesses to the alleged incidents. Several residents recently told a visitor they had seen none of the alleged acts.
“For some, hindsight is powerful in the wake of the allegations. Lenora Smith, who lives next door to the center, voiced ‘surprise’ at the charges but does remember that ‘a few things I saw were kind of unusual.’
“Well, Robert Kelly owned a plumbing business, but ‘at times he stayed over there (at the day-care center) a lot,’ she said....
“Some people here admit to being a bit jumpy since the allegations surfaced.
“Debbie Jones said, ‘I get paranoid.’ Extending her hand, palm down, she made it tremble, saying: ‘I'm like this if I'm with my kids in a public place.’
“In a building on the town's main thoroughfare, South Broad Street, a young boy who looked about 5 years old, bolstered her point. As he walked out of an office into a hall, apparently heading for the bathroom, he looked over his shoulder and said stoically to a woman: ‘If I don't come back, call the police.’”
– From “Child
Abuse Charges at Day-Care Center Divide Formerly Close-Knit Community”
by Lee May in the Los Angeles Times (June 8, 1991)
It’s not just politics that make strange bedfellows
June 23, 2014
“The emphasis has got to be on the crime. Once you start using labels like satanic, sadistic or ritualistic, then you’re immediately raising a red flag.... Law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, mental health professionals and especially the general public begin to back off, because it’s so hard to believe these things happen.... We emphasized rape, sex offense, indecent liberties, crimes against nature...Those were the crimes that Bob Kelly was convicted of, those are what the jury heard evidence of....
“We let the defense attorneys bring out the sadistic and ritualistic....”
– From District Attorney H. P. Williams Jr.’s address to “From Heartbreak Through Healing: Facing the Reality of Sexual and Ritual Abuse of Children,” the first national convention of Believe the Children (April 2-4, 1993, in Arlington Heights, Ill.)
I transcribed Williams' cautionary prosecutorial advice from audiotapes, so I can only imagine the scene on the speakers' dais he shared with not only one of the Little Rascals mothers, but also Laura Buchanan, author of “Satan's Child: A Survivor's Story That Can Help Others Heal from Cultic Ritual Abuse.”
What must have Williams been thinking as Buchanan earnestly recalled that:
“We stood poised with knives in an incomprehensible world where children killed children.... Permitted to live until age four [my sister] was sacrificed by my parents.... My final programming, as a teenager, occurred on an autopsy table in the coroner’s office. A surgical procedure was staged and through a small incision in my scalp I was told that a surveillance device would be inserted into my brain. The supposed implant would be used at national headquarters to continuously monitor my thoughts. For decades the programming was extremely effective. Until the age of 44, I had no idea that my parents practiced satanism....”
With Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson locked away, and the overturning of their convictions still two years away, DA Williams was riding high. But surely he must have experienced the slightest frisson of doubt when he saw Buchanan’s patent insanity being swallowed whole by the same audience that so enthusiastically applauded his case against the Edenton Seven.
Cable head Wendy Murphy strikes (out) again...
June 18, 2014
“I was disappointed to see that one of the most celebrated cases of this time was mentioned in [Ross Cheit’s] book but not analyzed. The Little Rascals case from Edenton, N.C., was the focus of a documentary by well-known filmmaker Ofra Bikel, whose reputation was challenged by her film, ‘Innocence Lost.’
“Bikel opined that the owners of the Little Rascals Day Care center were railroaded by children who made wildly incredible claims. For example, Bikel showcased the testimony of a little girl who said she’d been molested on a spaceship. When asked on cross-examination whether the spaceship was ‘real,’ the child said ‘yes.’ Bikel omitted crucial context on that. On re-direct examination about the spaceship the little girl explained that the day care center had taken the kids to a carnival and that the child had been molested on one of the spaceship rides.
“That particular story isn’t in this book, but it is packed with many like it. Even the most skeptical reader will find it difficult to deny that they were snookered by the media coverage to some extent, which means someone owes an awful lot of abused children an apology.”
“ ‘Witchhunt Narrative’ Retells '80s Day Care Abuse”
by Wendy Murphy at WeNews (May 23, 2014)
If you know Wendy Murphy from her frequent appearances on cable news channels, variously labeled as “legal expert,” “former sex crimes prosecutor” or “victims advocate,” then you aren’t surprised to see her so confidently weigh in on Cheit’s book. Neither are you surprised to see her so casually disdain the facts of the case. Take, for instance, her analysis of the Duke lacrosse case: “I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth."
So Ofra Bikel’s “reputation was challenged” by “Innocence Lost”? What does that mean? The same “Innocence Lost” that led to her winning a John Chancellor Award, a duPont–Columbia Award and an Emmy?
Murphy then cherry-picks the spaceship anecdote as if the child’s having earlier visited a carnival somehow confirms that she “had been molested on one of the spaceship rides.”
Was the carnival similarly responsible for Witness A’s testifying that Kelly put a candle and a burning flower stem in his "number two".... that he was on a tugboat with Kelly.... that Kelly tried to shoot an apple off another child’s head....that he and the other child were hung up in a bag in a tree?....
And was it responsible for Witness B’s testifying that Kelly made him put a Magic marker in another child’s butt... that Kelly tried to push him onto a fire in the woods.... that he saw a lion and a “real bear” in the woods.... that Betsy Kelly ran around the day care brandishing a knife?.....
And what about Witness C’s testifying that Kelly put his gun in her mouth.... that Kelly gave her pills that made her sleepy..... that another day-care worker beat four babies until blood came out of their eyes?....
Must have been some carnival.
Dr. Frances makes case for Chandler’s release
June 15, 2014
“Andrew Junior Chandler has been unjustly incarcerated in a North Carolina prison for 27 years, charged with a crime that almost surely never happened....
“Let’s hope that Gov. Pat McCrory will review the mistaken judgment of his misnamed ‘clemency office’ and correct this stain on the reputation of North Carolina justice.”
hysteria of sexual, satanic ritual abuse and a miscarriage of NC justice”
by Dr. Allen Frances in the Raleigh News & Observer (June 15) text cache
Dr. Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, once again steps forward to take responsibility for therapy’s Dark Ages, this time in the newspaper read daily by those state officials who have refused to grant relief to Junior Chandler.
What is so sad as a debunker with no bunk?
June 12, 2014
“He thinks the continued treatment of these cases as a modern-day episode of mass hysteria does disservice to children and even puts them in danger.
“ ‘We have, over the last 20 years, discounted the word of children who might testify about sexual abuse,’ he writes. ‘We have become more worried about overreacting to child sexual abuse than we are about underreacting to it.’
“If that were the legacy of the day-care cases, it would be a damning one. But when I spoke to psychologists in the field – those Professor Cheit cites respectfully, as well as those he attacks – they gave a different account of the science at the heart of this history....”
– From “Abuse
Cases, and a Legacy of Skepticism” by
Emily Bazelon in the New York Times (June 9)
Thank you, Ms. Bazelon. In the category of “fat books in desperate search of a reason to exist,” Cheit’s “The Witch-Hunt Narrative” belongs right up there with William D. Cohan’s contemporaneous "The Price of Silence,” an account of the Duke lacrosse case that sympathizes not with the railroaded (and later exonerated!) defendants but with District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was disbarred and briefly jailed for conspiring to rig the case against them.
At the core of each book is the unsubstantiated contention that something surely must have happened, either at a Durham party house and at countless day cares. Fortunately, Cohan and Cheit can only gratuitously smear the reputations of innocent defendants, not put them in prison -- unlike Little Rascals expert witness Mark “where there's smoke there's fire” Everson.
Nancy Lamb: ‘Would you want someone like me?’
June 3, 2014
“I want all of you to ask yourselves: If you were to find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of being the victim of a crime, who would you want representing your interest in the criminal justice system?
“Would you want someone like me, with 30 years experience as a veteran prosecutor, a person who has prosecuted every kind of criminal case there is?
“Or would you want someone like my opponent, whose entire criminal experience comes as in the role of being a criminal defense attorney, defending criminals who commit crimes against the people of the 1st District?”
– Little Rascals prosecutor Nancy Lamb, now a candidate for district attorney,
comparing herself – most favorably! – with incumbent Andrew Womble
Lamb won the Democratic nomination for DA in last month’s primary and will face Republican Womble in the general election. Although her campaign website boasts that she has been “nationally recognized for her work with child abuse,” it somehow neglects to mention her star turn in one of the country’s most publicized “satanic ritual abuse” prosecutions. Fortunately, the five months between now and Nov. 4 should provide ample opportunity for her to address that issue.
Courts reluctantly turn to Little Rascals DA
May 27, 2014
“The state court system says it hired a local defense attorney to prosecute three murder suspects because the current district attorney had conflicts of interest in all three cases and no other prosecutors were available.
“The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts hired H. P. Williams Jr. as a special prosecutor on March 27 after attempts to find a prosecutor from either the state Attorney General’s Office or another district attorney’s office failed....”
– From “Williams to prosecute 2 more murder cases” by William F. West in The [paywalled] Daily Advance (May 24)
Yes, that’s the same H.P. Williams Jr. who as district attorney prosecuted the Edenton Seven, who as an ostensible expert appeared at conferences on “satanic ritual abuse” alongside “cult cop” Robert J. Simandl and Civia Tamarkin of Believe the Children, who as a candidate for reelection received only 41 percent of the vote and who after returning to private practice emphatically declined to discuss the Little Rascals case.
Yes, that H.P. Williams Jr....
Day-care panic had roots in incest movement
May 23, 2014
“....The widespread belief that sexual abuse of children is endemic to society is a relatively new notion. In fact, it can be traced to a particular moment in history: April 17, 1971.
“On that day the New York Radical Feminists, a group that at its height boasted
no more than 400 members, held a groundbreaking conference on rape. For two
days, women held
forth on a subject long considered taboo.... A speech given by Florence Rush [was] the
highlight of the event.
“Rush was an unlikely star for such a gathering. A middle-aged social worker, who had never been raped, she outlined statistical studies suggesting that sexual abuse of children, including incest, was a more widespread problem than was generally recognized....
“Before Rush's speech, feminists had given little thought to incest. Author
Andrea Dworkin recalled that before the conference ‘we never had any idea how
common it was.’ In the
decades following Rush's talk, feminists more than made up for their earlier unawareness, competing with each other in elevating the number of victims....
“Believe the women. Believe the children. These refrains became the mantra of
the incest movement. While the women's movement would be enormously successful
in turning sexual
abuse – including incest – into a major public issue, women, ironically, would become the chief victims
of the hysteria it generated.
“The obsession with this supposedly rampant sexual abuse played out in two ways: ‘Believe the women’ became the repressed memory hysteria. ‘Believe the children’ turned into the day-care hysteria....”
– From “Sex, Lies, and Audiotapes” by Rael Jean Isaac in the Women’s Quarterly (summer 2001)
The road to the moral panic that would sweep up innocent day-care providers from North Carolina to New Zealand was a long one. If Florence Rush's 1971 speech was one milestone early on, then perhaps the still-contentious 1988 conference of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation could be seen as the beginning of the end – although the allegations against the Edenton Seven weren't yet even a gleam in a therapist's eye....
The unenlightened self-interest of prosecutors
May 16, 2014
“Last year at a state solicitors’ convention in Myrtle Beach, [South Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty] cautioned that prosecutors in the state have been ‘getting away with too much for too long.’ He added, ‘The court will no longer overlook unethical conduct, such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and suppression of evidence. You better follow the rules or we are coming after you and will make an example. The pendulum has been swinging in the wrong direction for too long and now it’s going in the other direction. Your bar licenses will be in jeopardy. We will take your license’....
“If most prosecutors are following the rules, you’d think they’d have little to fear, and in fact would want their rogue colleagues identified and sanctioned....The state’s prosecutors didn’t see it that way....
“At least 13 of the head prosecutors in the state’s 16 judicial districts, along with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, are asking for Beatty to be recused from criminal cases. This would presumably end his career as a state supreme court justice....”
– From “Judge
says prosecutors should follow the law. Prosecutors revolt.”
by Radley Balko in the Washington Post (March 7)
“....Decades of studies show eyewitness testimony is only right about half the time – a reality that has prompted a small vanguard of police chiefs, courts and lawmakers to toughen laws governing the handling of eyewitnesses and their accounts of crimes....
“Prosecutors, however, have opposed the efforts, arguing that the changes erode their powers, even as studies have shown that eyewitnesses are about half as likely to choose the correct suspect out of a lineup as they are to choose some combination of the innocent fillers or no suspect at all when the correct one is present. The reexamination of eyewitness testimony comes at a time when technology and other forensic analysis are being given greater weight....”
– From “Eyewitness
Testimony No Longer A Gold Standard” by
Nigel Duara of the Associated Press (April 19, 2014)
TV prosecutor Jack McCoy suffered his own ethical dark nights of the soul, but I can’t imagine him finding much in common with such miscreants as these.
Supposed debunking of moral panic is itself spurious
May 10, 2014
“The failure to obtain convictions [in the McMartin Preschool case] combined with massive press coverage during and after, which ‘taught’ the American public various ‘lessons’ about child sex abuse, from child suggestibility to the notion that one must guard against ‘hysteria’ on such issues.
“The Witch-Hunt Narrative [by Ross Cheit] examines the evidence in the McMartin case as well as other widely reported cases, and gathers other sources on the phenomenon, to conclude that the McMartin case and reporting led to a paradigm of treating charges of abuse as a witch hunt rather than legitimate. This book goes a long way to debunk the paradigm, because there was compelling evidence for conviction....”
Are we now witnessing the beginning of a belated backlash to the backlash over the “satanic ritual abuse” prosecutions? Contrary to Professor Hamilton’s enthusiastic review, Ross Cheit’s 544-page tome is riddled with inaccuracies, distortions and a shocking number of crucial omissions. Fortunately Debbie Nathan and the National Center for Reason and Justice have responded with a devastating point-by-point refutation – about which more later....
Update: I asked Hamilton, who teaches at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, Yeshiva University, to read Nathan’s piece and reconsider. Her response: “We will have to agree to disagree.”
The reign of fantasy as therapy, recalled in a single chart
May 3, 2014
Too bad it abruptly ends at 2008, but the graph above still plots clearly the rise and fall of not only “(satanic) ritual abuse” but also two other examples of the 20th century’s most misguided ideas.
Let’s hope their decline continues uninterrupted.
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.