Will a court pay attention?

April 13, 2021

If I had harbored even an iota of doubt about Junior Chandler’s innocence, it would’ve been vaporized by the podcast episode below.

Most dramatically, the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic’s meticulously assembled “Impossibility Exhibit” demonstrates that Junior was nowhere near the scene of his imaginary crimes….

But is the court paying attention?

View from Edenton: Oh, the damage done….

March 1, 2021

I was surprised recently to notice a Facebook message from an elementary school teacher in Greenville, N.C.

Buddy Hyatt had grown up in Edenton and wanted to talk about the Little Rascals Day Care case. “It ripped apart many families and almost destroyed the town,” he wrote. “In 1989, when the accusations started, I was in first grade. But earlier I had attended Little Rascals. My parents had me and my younger brother checked over by an unbiased child psychiatrist in Greenville. After several sessions he reported that we had no indications of physical or sexual abuse.”

Buddy Hyatt

Buddy had multiple other windows on the case. ‘”My grandfather, Pete Manning, was editor and publisher of the Chowan Herald, and my dad was associate pastor and minister of music at Edenton Baptist.

“The Twiddys, the Kellys and Nancy Smith were all members of our church, as was [initial accuser] Jane Mabry Williams. This split the church right down the middle. Because the pastor and staff wouldn’t take sides, quite a few people got mad as fire. A good handful left. Some (especially those against the Kellys) spoke harshly and rudely to both my dad and grandmother.

“I feel most sorry for Bob and Betsy’s daughter, Laura. We had been in the same kindergarten class when the accusations started. My mom carpooled us. We did everything we could to be kind and remain friends with Laura and her family. I cannot imagine the pain and heartbreak they experienced.

“Lew, I know that’s a lot of information. Forgive me. I am happy to talk any time about the case or Little Rascals. The accusations and trial were a travesty and left so many people hurt and broken. No matter how much exoneration is given, the damage is already done.”

A few days passed before I heard from Buddy again: “Forgive me for being slow to respond. I happened to catch Covid, so the past week has been quite a struggle. Once I get through this (hopefully I’m on the tail end of it), we can plan to talk….”

Two weeks later Buddy Hyatt was dead. We never talked. I’m grateful for his big-hearted recollections and for his resolve to say more. RIP, Buddy.


‘I walked into FREEDOM….’

Bob Kelly, left, and Mark Montgomery at Duke Univerisity School of Law on Feb. 18, 2019.

Sept. 22, 2020

A burst of sunshine in these grim times. A note arrived today from Little Rascals Day Care case exoneree Bob Kelly: “Today, 25 years ago, because of Mark Montgomery’s wonderfully written and argued brief, I walked into FREEDOM…. Thanks to him and people like you who have believed in us!”


Betsy Kelly’s cruelly long and ugly road to freedom

Nov. 27, 2019

Betsy Kelly is paroled from the Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

In January she accepted a plea of “no contest” and a sentence of seven years in prison. Since she had already served two years and two weeks in jail, she became eligible for parole almost immediately. But Assistant Attorney General Bill Hart, fuming over her unwavering insistence that she was innocent, reneged on an agreement not to challenge her release, and the Parole Commission kept her imprisoned another 10 months.

Betsy Kelly’s no contest plea disqualifies her from the National Registry of Exonerations, but she is surely as innocent as the rest of the Edenton Seven – that is, completely innocent, Bill Hart be damned.


What assistant AG ‘found interesting’ about Elle article

Nov. 26, 2019

I’ve previously cited here and here Elle magazine’s deeply reported 1993 article on the Little Rascals case. You can read it here.

But I had somehow overlooked this response to Greensboro journalists Edward Cone and Lisa Scheer from assistant attorney general Bill Hart. It has not aged well.

Dear Ed and Lisa,

I have read your recent article in Elle Magazine, “The Demons of Edenton.”

I found it interesting that you chose to leave out the fact that Chris Bean, now a District Court Judge, had initially represented Bob Kelly as his lawyer, until he found out that his son had been abused.

I also found it interesting that you chose not to include the fact that Bob Kelly’s jury had the full benefit of the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of both Maggie Bruck and William Kenner through their testimony at his trial.

Notably absent from your article was any balancing psychological viewpoint to the Bruck/Kenner/Ofshe propaganda. You had access to the testimony of Mark Everson, a psychologist who testified for the state at Bob Kelly’s trial, but did not quote him. You criticized Roland Summit, but did not quote him….

William P. Hart
Special Deputy Attorney General

I won’t use this post to address all of Hart’s claims, but….

– Chris Bean’s role in the case, far from being culpatory for Bob Kelly, actually provoked stinging criticism from the North Carolina Court of Appeals. “This boils down to the most fundamental questions of fairness,” Judge Gerald Arnold said. “When you have an attorney testifying that ‘I was Mr. Kelly’s attorney and I believed in him very strongly until I learned the truth, that is to say that he’s guilty, and then I was shattered.’ How can there be more prejudicial, stronger evidence put before a jury than to have a former attorney, the defendant’s attorney say that?” Further, Bean was among those parents whom prosecutors inappropriately but persuasively presented as de facto experts on child psychology.

– Mark Everson, UNC psychologist, was tragically influential with a “coherent package” of misconceptions he clung to long after they had been exposed by updated research. And of course there’s his jaw-dropping “where there’s smoke there’s fire” argument….

– Los Angeles psychiatrist Roland Summit, a key player in the McMartin Preschool trial, tried too late to shed responsibility for the many defendants wrongfully convicted by his “child sexual abuse syndrome” theory.

Bill Hart’s letter didn’t mention it, but I have to wonder whether this was the Elle passage that actually got under his skin most annoyingly:

“[Hart] is emotionally involved in the Little Rascals case to a startling degree. Last year he married Patricia Kephart, the mother of a Little Rascals child, who Hart had become romantically involved with during his prosecution of the case. ‘If anything it’s made it more difficult on me,’ he says of his entanglement in the investigation.”

There are huge and obvious problems with Hart’s behavior, but his “difficult” personal consequences don’t rank high on the list.



Time for Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Three years ago a former Edenton resident told me: “The town leaders still have some things to answer for about Little Rascals, and I suspect that until there is a process of reconciliation, the town will remain a troubled place, though it does a good job putting on a facade.”

Edenton will elect its town officials Nov. 5. The predominant issues – population decline and the lack of a second supermarket – are clearly important, but I want to add another. This is from a query I sent all the candidates:

I don’t live in Edenton, but I’m reaching out to candidates for mayor and town council about a local issue of historic importance.

The Little Rascals Day Care case was Edenton’s most significant event of the 20th Century. The trial of Robert Kelly remains the longest and most expensive in North Carolina history. He served six years in prison before the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned his conviction and that of Dawn Wilson. The lives of Kelly, Wilson and the five other defendants were profoundly harmed over allegations of “satanic ritual abuse” of children in their care.

The Little Rascals case, most prominently covered by eight hours of documentary coverage on PBS’s “Frontline,” also did nationwide damage to the town’s reputation. But Edenton has never reexamined, much less made amends for, the wrongful prosecution of the Edenton Seven. One way to move forward would be to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Fact-finding, non-judicial truth commissions first appeared in the 1970s and have since been used to foster honest discussion and to encourage reconciliation in the aftermath of community conflict.

In North Carolina the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an independent, seven-member body that sought to heal a city left divided and weakened by the “Greensboro Massacre” of 1979. The parallel to Edenton is inexact but undeniable.

If elected, would you consider supporting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address Edenton’s continuing divide over the Little Rascals Day Care case? Thank you for your time and attention. And good luck in your campaign.

The two candidates who have responded so far seem at least cautiously open to the idea. One day the Town of Edenton will surely find the courage to embark on its long-avoided “process of reconciliation” – let’s hope the Edenton Seven are around to see it.’


Child-witnesses, now in their 30s, reject call to speak up


Dr. Lee Coleman

July 7, 2019

For those seeking to understand the Little Rascals Day Care case one particularly intriguing question remains: How do the former child-witnesses, now well into their 30s, look back at their central role?

Do they believe today that their testimony was accurate? Or have they come to realize that those bizarre sexual accusations – as well as the accounts of sharks, spaceships and burning babies – were products of sheer fantasy? And that they had been relentlessly manipulated by the prosecution’s therapists?

Last month I sent letters to the Little Rascals witnesses in hopes that they would be ready to talk about their experiences. Here’s what I said:

“I apologize if this letter is unwelcome. For the past eight years I have been researching the Little Rascals Day Care case. I’m writing you because as a child you were a witness for the prosecution in Bob Kelly’s trial in 1991-92. The court records include a passage describing your testimony.

“I blog at littlerascalsdaycarecase.org, and I have worked with Duke Law School to build an archive on the case. My aim is to persuade the State of North Carolina to issue the Edenton Seven a statement of innocence similar to the one given the defendants in the Duke lacrosse case.

“I don’t know how you look back at your involvement in the case, and you are certainly under no obligation to tell me. But if you might be willing to share your recollections – however they might agree or conflict with your testimony – please contact me….”

In the decades since the “satanic ritual abuse” day care prosecutions few child-witnesses have chosen to step forward. One who did so – anonymously – looked back with sadness at the McMartin case: “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?”

After receiving no responses to my letter, I asked Lee Coleman what he would advise those still-silent Little Rascals child-witnesses. Dr. Coleman, a Berkeley, Calif., psychiatrist, has testified in some 800 child sex-abuse cases, of which perhaps 100 involved day-care or preschool allegations. In this YouTube presentation he analyzes the McMartin Preschool case.

He replied to my request with this open letter (condensed) to the Little Rascals child-witnesses:

First, it is now recognized by all parties – prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, academic students of memory and suggestibility in young children being interviewed for possible sexual abuse – that the methods used in Little Rascals had serious potential to influence memory, often creating a mental picture that to the child is indistinguishable from an actual memory of actual events.
This brings us to the very heart of my message to you, as you seriously consider whether justice may be served by your coming forth with what you remember of how you were interviewed and who you spoke to prior to the trial. Remember, it is not your memories of what did or didn’t happen at the school that is important, but your memories of how you were interviewed, and of who you spoke with during the time before the trial. This is the crucial time, and these are the crucial events, that any fair decision about the meaning of what you said during the trial can be best judged.
What I cannot stress enough is that if you testified to things that were not true, that was through no fault of yours, because such false testimony would be the fault of poor and suggestive interview methods, therefore neither lies, nor any indication of your sincerity as a child. If a child says things that he or she believes are true, because interview methods cause the child to accept ideas coming from interviewers rather than the child’s actual memory, then the fault lies with the interviewers and not the child.
To blame the child for misdeeds of poorly trained interviewers is, in my opinion, a kind of child abuse. I have testified about these issues hundreds of times, and most recently spoken about these issues as part of my continuing effort to bring understanding to our nation’s system of bringing justice to the area of sexual abuse of children. Such abuse, when it happens, calls for punishment of perpetrators and support of victims. When unprofessional conduct by prosecutors and their assistants causes children to be victims of suggestions that create false memories, this also calls for a better response from our society.
I thank you for taking the time to reconsider that time in your life and reconsider whether you might bring the best resolution to the efforts of Mr. Powell and others seeking justice in the Little Rascals Day Care case.
Lee Coleman, MD

Death noted: Former publisher of Edenton paper


Pete Manning

March 9, 2019

Pete Manning, 89, died Feb. 21 at his home in Edenton. Before retiring, Manning worked more than 50 years at the Chowan Herald, most prominently as publisher.

As prosecution of Edenton Seven lurched forward, members of the local “Believe the Children” cohort grew wary of the news media. Early on, however – before seeing themselves on “Frontline” — they had actually sought the spotlight.

Jack D. Grove, managing editor of the Herald, recalled that short-lived era to journalist David Loomis:

“I was approached by several influential businessmen who clouded up and rained all over me for putting a [Little Rascals] story on the back page. I said, ‘Go tell Pete Manning, don’t tell me.’ These businessmen, almost all parents of Little Rascals children, went into a closed-door meeting with Pete. We never again had a story anywhere but on the front page after that.”

Unfortunately, the Herald’s front-page coverage was painfully passive at best.

Edenton anything but eager to make amends for Little Rascals

Post & Courier


Feb. 11, 2019

“Such stories aren’t proudly passed down from one generation to the next. Unlike some small Southern towns,
which often ignore the troublesome elements of their past, Batesburg-Leesville (the two towns merged in 1993) has embraced [Isaac] Woodard’s tragedy and tried to make amends….”

– From “A cop gouged out a black vet’s eyes. 73 years later, the SC town confronts it
by Brian Hicks in the Charleston Post & Courier (Feb. 7)

If ever there was a small Southern town committed to ignoring the “troublesome elements” of its past, it is Edenton, North Carolina. Not a hint of the Little Rascals Day Care case – surely the most significant news event of 20th century Edenton – mars the civic memory.



Dr. Summit was anything but objective about McMartin

Feb. 8, 2019

Second of two parts

At the core of the recent McMartin expose “They Must Be Monsters: A Modern-Day Witch Hunt” is the authors’ meticulous tracing of how the fantasies of one paranoid schizophrenic mother, Judy Johnson, fostered the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.

But Johnson did not act alone. Toward the end of the book Matthew LeRoy and Deric Haddad recall interviewing psychiatrist Roland Summit in his office and confronting him with evidence that – contrary to his earlier denials — he had been deeply involved not only with supporting Johnson’s bizarre accusations but also with fostering them.

I asked Haddad what lay behind Summit’s deceit.

“I suspect he was trying to cover up that he had given false testimony under oath,” he said. “He’d testified that they ‘first met’ in February 1984 – but Judy’s own calendars revealed a relationship that went back a year earlier. He may have had an influence on her before she ever even dropped her son off at McMartin.

“So when he looked over her notes, that only we had possession of, he saw that we could prove he’d lied. He got really shaky….”

If he had concerns about his professional reputation, Summit surely had much to be shaky about, including his role in whipping up panic among parents and his insistence that McMartin Preschool sat above a network of abuse-enabling secret tunnels.