Robin Byrum, youngest of Edenton Seven, recalls brutality at hands of prosecution


Robin Byrum in 1997

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.’”

In 1990, bond was reduced to a still absurd $200,000 and her grandparents and two aunts in Kentucky managed to pay in time to get her home for Christmas.

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?”


‘Satanic ritual abuse’ abuse believers: The problem wasn’t their IQ

Austin American-Statesman

Dan Chaon

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.”

– Dan Chaon, author of “Ill Will,” quoted by Joe Gross in the Austin American-Statesman

Early on, Chaon’s interest in writing a novel centered on “satanic ritual abuse” was piqued by the West Memphis Three.


French had incisive title for ‘Innocence Lost’: ‘A Judicial Harassment’

April 18, 2017

“C’est un reportage accablant sur le système judiciaire américain…. Ce pourrait être simplement l’histoire d’une erreur judiciaire dont aucun système pénal au monde n’est exempt, hélas. C’est bien pire, et correctement annoncé par le titre français : ‘ Un acharnement judiciaire.’ “

– From “Persécution judiciaire” by Guy Baret in Le Figaro (March 25, 1999)

That is:

“[Innocence Lost] is a damning report about the U.S. judicial system…. This could just be the story of a miscarriage of justice of which no criminal justice system in the world is free, unfortunately. It’s much worse, and properly announced by the French title: ‘A judicial harassment’….”

Apparently critic Baret wasn’t the only one in France to look skeptically at “satanic ritual abuse” claims. I haven’t found a single example of a French day-care prosecution during the moral panic.


View from exoneree: Jurors, be skeptical about professionals’ claims

Francisco Carrillo Jr.

April 14, 2017

“In wrongful convictions, the jury at some point was misled, either by false testimony or bad evidence. It’s the unspoken piece that the jurors – the public – are the ones who are ultimately used to convict someone unjustly because they were misled.

“When you’re selected, you’re officially deputized to be part of the system, and the jury can’t take the nonchalant position of ‘The professionals know what they’re doing, we’re just here.’ No, you’re a key part of this. You have to think about it, and if you don’t ask, if you don’t speak up if there’s a doubt, someone’s life could be ruined.”

–  Francisco Carrillo Jr., quoted in “Wrongful-convictions database moves to UC Irvine” in the Los Angeles Times (April 14)

Carrillo spent 20 years in prison for a fatal drive-by shooting in Los Angeles County, Calif. His conviction was overturned in 2011.

Gullibility was only one of the problems corrupting the decision-making of Bob Kelly’s jurors.


Press decides to let Sir Edward Heath rest in peace

April 6, 2017

“Beginning with the McMartin preschool case in 1984… much of the media accepted without question fantastic claims brought by police, parents and prosecutors. But by the early 1990s when the courts began tossing out convictions based on recovered memories, coached testimony, and magical thinking, the media backed away….

“Two stories in the U.S. and British press have resurrected SRA: Pizzagate and abuse claims lodged against deceased British Prime Minister Edward Heath. However, this time round these stories are being treated with skepticism ….

“Abuse is a serious enough crime without having the false and inflammatory adjective of ‘satanic’ appended to it. I am glad to see The Sun and Mail on Sunday are treating this aspect of the claims as being ridiculous….”

– From “Satanic Ritual Abuse Is Back In The News, But Now Met With Skepticism” by George Conger at the Media Project (March 30)


View from Jamaica: ‘Public screamings’ echoed McMartin

Glenn Tucker

March 31, 2017

“A few months ago, I started receiving photographs of young men on my phone. They were accompanied by frantic messages identifying these men as being responsible for some of the current sex crimes and pleading for the widest possible circulation of the information.

“I immediately became suspicious and pressed the ‘delete’ button. Subsequent events proved me correct. The authors were just scorned lovers seeking revenge. This was when the society was becoming excited by a high-profile case of paedophilia and some of the most horrible prescriptions were being proposed to ‘correct’ the problem. It occurred to me that the society was not in the mood for rational reasoning on this matter. Not that Jamaica was reacting differently from any other society. While the public screamings were taking place, I was reminded of the McMartin preschool case in the US….“

“In the US, the National Registry of Exonerations list sex crimes way and above other offences for exonerations. Between 1989 and 2012, sexual abuse accounted for 80 per cent of exonerations and the main reason given was ‘mistaken eyewitness identification.’ For child sex abuse, the percentage [of exonerations] was 74 and the main reasons were perjury and false accusation.

“I would never attempt to minimise the issue of violence against women and children. There is, however, an abundance of evidence that should encourage crusaders to temper their emotions with a little logic before picking up the sword….”

– From “Sex-abuse crusaders, temper your emotions” by Glenn Tucker in The Gleaner, Jamaica, West Indies (March 27)


Another bumper harvest for National Registry of Exonerations

March 20, 2017

“America saw another record year for the number of prisoners being exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law.

“For 2016, 166 people were exonerated of crimes and released from prison, 52 of them for murder. Of all the exonerations, 70 cases involved official misconduct of some sort, and in 74 of the cases, convictions came from guilty pleas. And in 94 cases (also a record) it turned out that no actual crime occurred at all. These were mostly drug cases but also some child sex abuse cases. Most famously, the San Antonio Four, four women convicted in 1998 in a fabricated satanic child sex abuse ring scandal, were released in 2016 after it finally became clear the crimes never occurred.”

– From “Decades of exoneration stats show blacks more likely to wrongfully convicted” by Scott Shackford at (March 7)

Of the Edenton Seven, only Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, whose convictions were overturned, qualify for the National Registry of Exonerations. As spokesman Ted Koehler told me five years ago, “The Edenton case was a terrible witch hunt. Regretfully, though, [Betsy] Kelly’s and [Scott] Privott’s guilty pleas and the dropped charges against [Robin] Byrum, [Shelley] Stone, and [Darlene] Harris do not fit our definition of an exoneration….”


Some journals getting better at correcting mistakes

March 9, 2017

“As a result of complaints, [scientific] journals have been posting notices of problems with Dr. [Carlo] Croce’s papers at a quickening pace. From just a handful of notices before 2013 – known as corrections, retractions and editors’ notices – the number has ballooned to at least 20, with at least three more on the way, according to journal editors….”

– From  “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass” by James Glanz and Agustin Armendariz in the New York Times (March 8)

Yet another example of professional journals responding with new vigor to faulty articles.

By contrast, no retraction has ever appeared in those journals that lent credence to testimony by the prosecution’s expert witnesses during the day-care panic. Or perhaps some author or editor still wants to defend the likes of “Stress Responses of Children to Sexual Abuse and Ritualistic Abuse in Day Care Centers” and “Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Cause of Multiple Personality Disorder”?


‘Sybil’ came clean, but psychiatrist wasn’t interested

Shirley Ardell Mason

Shirley Ardell Mason

“[Shirley Ardell] Mason was the real person behind the 1970s best seller ‘Sybil,’ which sold 6 million copies with its riveting account of an abused woman inhabited by 16 different personalities. Sally Field won an Emmy for her 1976 portrayal seen by 20 percent of the nation.

“In the process, Mason popularized the condition known as multiple personality disorder – a trendy 1970s diagnosis. The number of cases mushroomed from about 75 to 40,000 after ‘Sybil’ was published….

“In the trove of records kept on her case, Mason actually admitted making up the many personalities.

“ ‘I do not really have any multiple personalities,’ she wrote in a letter to her psychiatrist. ‘I do not even have a “double.” … I am all of them. I have been lying in my pretense of them.’

“Her doctor chalked it up to a defensive ploy to avoid deeper therapy….”

–  From “The Minnesotan behind Sybil, one of America’s most famous psychiatric patients
by Curt Brown in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Feb. 25)


Letters claiming wrongful conviction couldn’t be true – could they?

Benjamin Rachlin

Feb. 22, 2017

“[When Rich RosenTheresa Newman and Jim Coleman began planning the state’s first innocence project], not everyone agreed their work was worth doing. To many… colleagues, in North Carolina and across the country, the letters they were reading were no more than acts of desperation: There was zero chance these inmates were innocent, only that they had nothing to lose by filing paperwork. The American criminal-justice system had always trivialized its own chances at convicting anyone wrongly, feeling certain – as lawyer Christine Mumma no longer could – that protections at trial made that outcome impossible….”

– From “A Justice Startup” by Benjamin Rachlin in “Innocent: The Fight Against Wrongful Convictions,” a Time special edition

Rachlin’s piece is excerpted from “Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption,” to be published in August.