How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors destroyed the lives of seven innocent
North Carolinians – and have yet to admit they were wrong
June 19, 2017
“Our criminal justice famously presumes that every accused person is innocent until proven guilty. But once a conviction is obtained, that presumption is turned on its head. Charges were brought, and a jury, which saw evidence and heard from the witnesses firsthand, voted to convict. At that point, finality sets in.
“Prosecutors tasked with defending a conviction against compelling evidence that it was wrongfully secured typically have two choices. They can accept the responsibility for participating — directly or indirectly — in an injustice, or they can insist that nothing went awry or that whatever mistakes may have been made were ‘immaterial’– that is, the jury would have convicted anyway. The justice system strongly pushes them in the latter direction. Ambitious, hard-charging prosecutors know that the way to the top is amassing guilty verdicts, not admitting mistakes. In 47 states [including North Carolina], their bosses – the county district attorney, the state’s attorney general – are elected. Incompetence, or appearing ‘soft on crime,’ can be fatal at the ballot box….
“The refusal to admit a mistake – or even an act of bad faith – holds true regardless of whether the prosecutor defending the conviction had any involvement at the trial level, personally knew the key players or even worked in the same office…. This may be due, in part, to a phenomenon that [Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed] calls ‘the conformity effect.’ Prosecutors… are ‘culturally aligned with that side and tend to defer to their peers who were the original decision makers.’ “
– From “For shame” by Lara Bazelon at Slate (April 7, 2016)
Although examples of such prosecutorial lockstep are legion, most relevant here is N.C. Attorney General Mike Easley’s response to the overturning of the convictions of Little Rascals defendants Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson. Easley, himself a former district attorney (and future governor), laid it on thick:
“The decision casts no doubt on the credibility of the children or the integrity of the investigation…. In both cases, the facts supporting the convictions were clear and overwhelming. [The N.C. Court of Appeals] disregarded these facts and misapplied the law.”
Four months later, throwing in the towel after the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals, Easley managed to find fault not with the prosecutors but with the children. “All prosecutors know that cases involving children weaken with age,” he said. “A retrial in this matter will be extremely difficult.”
June 3, 2017
How did prosecutors let go ‘16 psychotic, baby-killing pedophiles’?
“An early indicator of the bizarre and fickle nature of the [Little Rascals] prosecution was that in all, 23 Edenton residents were named by the children (via counseling) as having engaged in essentially the same abominable acts as those indicted.
“Yet the county DA’s office arbitrarily pared the case to seven, leaving, one assumes, 16 psychotic, baby-killing pedophiles to walk freely on the streets of their small city….”
– From “A ‘Frontline’ documentary on child abuse hysteria shows how good TV can be” by Brian Lambert in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press (May 27, 1997)
Among the lucky 16: the mayor and sheriff.
April 29, 2017
Robin Byrum, not long out of high school and pregnant with her first child, went to work at Little Rascals Day Care Center in September 1988. A year later she was in prison under $500,000 bond, charged with 23 counts of child sex abuse. Prosecutors had no credible evidence against her, but they were betting the youngest defendant would implicate Bob Kelly and the others accused.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she recalls today in her first interview since charges finally were dropped against her in 1996. “They thought I would tell on the others. That was the only reason I was swept up.”
Now 15 years into her second marriage, she lives in Eastern North Carolina. For her privacy I’m not mentioning her town or married name. “I’ve gone on with my life. It’s turned out well, in spite of all that….”
After months of sporadic questioning she was arrested in January 1990. “Three men from the SBI came to my mother’s house. It was so frightening. They intimidated me. One of them put his foot up on the table and I could see the gun in his ankle holster. He said, ‘I’d hate to see you taken away from that child.’
“Then we went to the police station in Edenton. [SBI agent] Kevin McGinnis said he would give me one more chance to talk. I could hear my baby crying in the next room. When I told him again I didn’t know anything, he was so angry he kicked the desk across the room.”
Along with Betsy Kelly and Dawn Wilson, she was put in a cell in women’s prison in Raleigh. “I was three hours from my only family in North Carolina. Strip-searched before and after every visit.
“They put another prisoner in there with us, a snitch, thinking she could get us to talk. But we had nothing to tell….. One day they even tossed our cell, looking for ‘satanic’ passages marked in our Bibles.”
As the months passed, prosecutors offered Byrum ever more tempting plea deals. In a particularly poignant moment in “Innocence Lost: The Plea” (1997) she explains to Ofra Bikel why she had even turned down a deal offering no active time, but an admission of guilt: “‘That would mean knowing I would not ever have to be separated from my child again. But then I’d have to live with the rest of my life that I [said I] did something when I didn’t do it.’”
Today Byrum, 46, works in health information management. “My office manager knew about the case, but the doctors hadn’t put two and two together until they went to your site. One of them shook his head and said, ‘How did seven people go to prison on something completely unfounded?’ Well, I’m still baffled too….
“How could anyone believe all these things happened? We were a block from downtown, in a building with huge windows and no curtains. Parents walked their 2- and 3-year-olds there, and they dropped by all the time….
“Didn’t a light bulb ever once come on that made somebody use their common sense?”
April 28, 2017
“There is this idea that people of the 1980s were just not very bright or really superstitious or something like that. Back then, the people who questioned it were treated with suspicion. People would say, ‘Of course this is happening, what’s wrong with you?’ And it’s not like this is an anomaly in American history. In the ’50s, Commies were crawling out of the basement. This stuff goes back to Salem witch trials…
“The ritual abuse thing also became part of psychological culture. This idea that children don’t lie about these things became really entrenched for a while….
“It was a way to talk about actual abuse, I think. At the time, the idea that childhood abuse was mostly perpetrated by family members was too outrageous, too awful. People would rather believe that it was evil, Satan-worshipping strangers.”
Early on, Chaon’s interest in writing a novel centered on “satanic ritual abuse” was piqued by the West Memphis Three.
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