I almost remember this case, as I was living in Austin at the time it was prosecuted.
In 1992, Fran and Dan Keller were both sentenced to 48 years in prison over accusations of sexual abuse crimes related to children they babysat in their home daycare center outside of Austin. The accusations stemmed first from the testimony of one pre-schooler who claimed Dan Keller spanked her, and soon were twisted into many of the trademark accusations in the “Satanic panic” mass hysteria that gripped the nation in the 90’s, much of which occurred under the persuasion of parents, therapists and police officers.
I do remember the panic, the fear that "Satan Worshippers" were traumatizing helpless children with unspeakable acts that they kept hidden until the innocent young souls were coaxed into telling the truth about what happened. It sent innocent people to jail, these theories, and it ruined lives and reputations. Today, in the words of the article, we say the evidence was "twisted," that parents, police, and therapists were all complicit in persuading children to say what we wanted to hear, even as we most feared it. That's the narrative today; it wasn't the narrative in the '90's, and woe be unto the person who tried to point out the flaws in that accepted thesis.
This part of the story is especially chilling:
In 2013, after spending 21 years behind bars, the Kellers were released from prison after journalist Jordan Smith revealed that the medical opinion of the then-novice emergency room doctor that examined one of the children in the case was incorrect. The doctor initially concluded in 1991 that the child may have been abused, but soon after learned that the signs he took as abuse were normal physical variants.
When my daughter was 3 or 4, so sometime in the mid-'90's, she had mild swelling on the soles of her feet, and my wife and I agreed she needed to go to the doctor. Our daughter's pediatrician at the time was an elderly man with many years experience who had just taken on a newly minted doctor, and it was the latter who entered the room to examine my daughter. She looked at my daughter's feet, then looked at me like something she'd step on if she found me in the kitchen when she turned on the lights. She began questioning my daughter in the most serious manner, determined to pry the truth from her innocent lips. My daughter was confused, and I quickly realized this woman thought I was a child abuser stupid enough to bring my damaged daughter to the doctor after my anger (or whatever) had subsided. Just before she was about to leave the room (and probably lock the door) to call the police, the older doctor walked by, and she asked his opinion of my daughter's condition. From the hallway he looked at her feet and pronounced: "Sand fleas." He looked at me: "Has she been playing in a sandbox?" Yes. "Sand fleas. Give her some Benadryl, she'll be fine."
Narratives can make us see what we see, make us interpret what we have to interpret in order to understand. 25 years ago it was Satanic rituals. Today, it is rape culture.
Well, almost; that's at least the outcome proponents of "Believe the women!" would have us pursue. We believed the children because, after all, why would they lie? We pressed them to tell us horrible things and then, when we heard our worst fears repeated back to us, we took it as true. There was something comforting in making the world that simple, that either/or, a bright line between good and evil. Now we are supposed to do that again: believe the people who allege they were raped, and lock up the people they point to as guilty. Trials are an obstruction, especially when they don't produce the results we prefer.
The Kellers got a trial, but it was a kangaroo court, a farce, a prosecution conducted in as fevered an atmosphere as any trial in Salem during the witch scare. Even our justice system is not immune to this kind of fear and paranoia. But that doesn't mean we should go on repeating it, giving the fear a new name and another justification and calling it "justice."
Justice is simply much harder to achieve than that.