Imaginary Satanic baby-killers, real people still in prison

Imaginary Satanic baby-killers, real people still in prison March 27, 2013

Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle reports on a legal appeal in Texas:

A roster of leading psychologists and related experts from around the world last week signed on to a pair of letters in support of an appeal filed on behalf of Frances Keller, who was convicted of sexual assault and who has spent the last two decades behind bars for a crime that almost certainly never happened.

Keller and her husband ran a daycare center. They are both serving 48-year sentences in Texas prison after being convicted in 1993 of using the center as a front for a Satanic cult. It was said the Kellers:

Frances Keller was sent to prison by people who wish their  lurid Satanic fantasies were true. (Photo by Jana Birchum)


… had engaged in murder and mutilation of babies and animals, that they’d taken the children on plane rides to Mexico, and that they taken the children to local cemeteries where satanic rituals were performed.

The Kellers were among hundreds of daycare workers across the country who in the Eighties and early Nineties were accused of being involved in “satanic cults” that abused children and used mind control to keep them from divulging the abuse. The most notorious case involved the McMartin Preschool in California, where daycare workers were charged with hundreds of counts of abuse in a criminal case that lasted more than a decade before the defendants were finally cleared of any wrongdoing.

Among the letters written in support of Frances Keller’s appeal was one written by psychology professor Evan Harrington, in which he discusses James Randall Noblitt, the self-proclaimed “expert” in the Satanic menace who served as the state of Texas’s expert witness in the prosecution of the Kellers:

The letter, signed by 39 leading experts from across the country and around the world, presents the court with evidence not only that Noblitt was, and is, unqualified to serve as an expert at all, but also that “ritual abuse” is a topic unsupported by any empirical research. Indeed, at trial the state called Noblitt to describe how the children’s allegations against the Kellers were believable and to avow that the allegations comported with “behaviors associated with so-called ritual abuse,” reads the letter. “In summary, the world portrayed by Dr. Noblitt is one in which thousands of cult abusers have infiltrated respectable society, and specifically daycare centers, in order to operate a clandestine subculture engaged in massive levels of felonious criminality,” reads the letter. To the contrary, Harrington writes, there is not now, nor was there in the early Nineties, any mainstream support for, or scientific evidence to demonstrate, that ritual abuse is a real phenomenon. “In conclusion, Dr. Noblitt stated in testimony at trial that there is little controversy about his descriptions of ritual abuse,” reads the letter. “This statement was not factually true in 1992, and is less true today.”

Randy Noblitt is a fantasist. I do not know if he is willfully lying or if he is so utterly self-deluded that the has come to believe his own lies, but like most such “experts” in his field, Noblitt has no respect for facts.

Here is an excerpt from Noblitt’s main opus, his 2000 book, Cult and Ritual Abuse: Its History, Anthropology, and Recent Discovery in Contemporary America:

One of the earlier efforts to educate the public about this phenomenon was The Satan Seller (1972), by Mike Warnke. This book was followed by a second, Schemes of Satan (1991). Warnke, an evangelist, reports that he was formerly a high priest in a Satanic cult. In The Satan Seller, Warnke describes his recruitment and participation in the cult while he was in college, and he describes some of the rituals, beliefs, and practices of this cult, along with his ultimate spiritual deliverance. In Schemes of Satan, Warnke describes his experience with Satanism and other varieties of occultism from a Christian perspective. He notes that multiple personality disorder may occur in individuals who have been exposed to Satanic rituals. Another survivor, Lauren Stratford (1988) reports horrific experiences in a Satanic cult and attributes her recovery largely to her Christian faith.

Noblitt includes a footnote at the mention of Warnke’s name. The footnote reads:

Naturally, Warnke and his published opinions have attracted criticism and controversy (e.g., Alexander, 1990; Trott & Hertenstein, 1992).

Noblitt acknowledges that Trott & Hertenstein exist, but does not mention that they thoroughly debunked every claim Mike Warnke ever made about Satanic cults, exposing him as a liar and a con-artist. Instead, Noblitt just darkly hints that, “naturally,” the Satanic conspiracy has attacked Warnke for his bold stand against it.

Warnke was a grifter, but he had a remarkable talent for concocting the kinds of lurid nightmares his evangelical audience wanted to believe were true. He realized that his audience wasn’t horrified by his tales of babies mutilated in Satanic rituals. His audience was tantalized by those tales. That audience wanted and wished and needed such implausible horrors to be true. And they still do.

It doesn’t matter if it’s all a lie. The fantasy of Satanic baby-killers is what gives their lives meaning.

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  • Magic_Cracker

    Question: Is there any legal basis for the victims of his “expert” testimony to sue Noblitt’s stupid and/or evil ass?

  • LoneWolf343

    Perjury? Slander?

  • Lori

    I think that for a civil suit you’d have to be about to prove actual and specific malice, and that’s a lot tougher than it sounds.

  • fredgiblet


    What if the court was sued, then they re-directed to him since they were going off his “expert” testimony?

  • You can’t sue a court, at least not over the result of a case. (You can sue them for violating your civil rights, for instance if they force you to take a religious oath when you aren’t a member of that religion, or you can sue them for breach of contract if the court owes you money – but that’s about it).

  • In the United States you cannot sue prosecutors, law enforcement, or any agent of the government for misconduct related to the performance of their jobs regardless of how egregious the misconduct or how severe the damage incurred. You cannot even sue for them doing things that clearly are not related to their jobs if it can be possibly connected to something they saw as their job. For example a cop who lies under oath to put you in prison … tough. The prosecutor who knowingly presents false evidence against you … nope. The defense secretary who orders you tortured despite good evidence you had nothing to do with anything. Well at least he has to think twice before leaving the country.

    Welcome to the world of Sovereign Immunity and the law enforcement exception to the federal tort claims act.

  • Lori

    What they said. You can’t sue and under current interpretation of the law (thanks again Conservatives on SCOTUS) it’s all but impossible to hold prosecutors accountable for even incredibly egregious abuses of power and mishandling of cases.

  • P J Evans

    On the other hand, if the prosecution withheld evidence that might have resulted in a not-guilty verdict, they can be in trouble. Or if their ‘expert witness’ that they relied on turns out to really be incompetent – there have been cases where the verdicts were tossed.

  • Yeah, didn’t Scalia something or other about actual innocence – even if there’s incontrovertible proof of said innocence that comes to light – being irrelevant after a jury finds you guilty? I forget the exact wording and I’m in no mood to deal with some of the bile a Googling might produce.
    I don’t believe it was actually part of a ruling or anything, just something he said in an interview or as part of a speaking engagement..

  • Right – but that’s through the appeals process. Not through a suit.

  • Lori

    Yeah, he did. It’s actually a pretty standard Conservative argument. The (so-called) integrity of the process must be preserved against endless appeals, even if it costs an innocent person his or her life. Scalia was just a bit more straightforward about it than most are willing to be.

    God I hate that guy.

  • flat

    no this has to be some joke this can’t be serious.
    Somebody please tell me this is some kind of hoax.

  • Lori

    They should be able to get the verdict over-turned, although the fact that it’s Texas makes that far from certain. Don’t forget that Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for a non-crime.

    Even if they do get the verdict over-turned that’s a separate issue from punishing the prosecutors for their mishandling of the case or Noblitt for being a lying sack of crap. There’s virtually no possibility of that happening.

  • If there is a way to do it it’s probably not straightforward.

    Once upon a time my parents had their apartment illegally searched by the police after a fire. They went to a lawyer and asked what they could do. The lawyer’s response: “Sue the Fire Department.”

    The way the Fire Department operated they would be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were not the ones who preformed the illegal search and in the process they would also prove that the police were the ones that did it and once that had been proved in court then my parents could do something about the police, but trying to go up against the police (who weren’t even trying to hide the fact they’d preformed a search that violated the constitution) directly was doomed to fail.

    If there is anything that can be done against Noblitt it would probably have to start indirectly like that. And probably a lot more indirectly.

  • Lori

    That is both fascinating and appalling.

  • Jared Bascomb

    And don’t forget Randall Dale Adams of The Thin Blue Line case, on Death Row in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit.

  • Okay, none of this is accurate. Presenting false evidence in a trial is prosecutorial misconduct, which is grounds for a retrial and recusal of the prosecutor. That it isn’t pursued very often is as much to do with overburdened public defenders who don’t care enough about their clients to go the extra mile, but it’s certainly not legal. False evidence is also potential grounds for a tort of malicious prosecution (which I believe can also be filed against a judge, although that’s extremely rare).

    It’s also not legal for a police officer to lie before a court. You seem to be mistaking this for the precedent that allows an officer to practice deception in an interrogation, not in court. In court, it’s perjury – and since perjury is a criminal act and not a civil tort, you don’t “sue” anyone for it. Of course, there are civil torts that can be brought as well.

    And sovereign immunity has nothing to do with it. Sovereign immunity prevents anyone from filing a tort against the federal or state governments as distinct legal entities, not against agents of the state.

  • Lori

    Adams’ case is horrible, but at least there was a crime. He didn’t commit it, but a crime happened. Willingham was executed and the Kellers have been sitting in prison for decades and there was no crime in either case.

  • Lori

    As the law is currently interpreted the standard for misconduct vs just being wrong is incredibly heavily weighted in favor of prosecutors. There was a case recently where the court held a definition of misconduct that was so narrow you’d basically never be able to prove it unless you got the prosecutor on tape saying, “I knew for a fact that Joe Blow was innocent of the crime, but I lied in order to send him to prison because I hate him.”

  • P J Evans

    They are going after some of those prosecutors, though.

  • Lori

    I reserve judgement until I see what happens to the cases. The most recent ruling (which I can’t find because my google-fu is failing me and I need to get ready to leave the house), was basically knocking down a case that had been brought against a prosecutor who had clearly committed misconduct.

  • The first thing to know about the USA:
    While many, perhaps even most (possibly even the vast majority, but that might be stretching it), citizens of the USA are decent people, as a whole we (and the subsets of us known as states) are seriously fucked up.

  • The (so-called) integrity of the process must be preserved against endless appeals, even if it costs an innocent person his or her life. Scalia was just a bit more straightforward about it than most are willing to be.

    I recall Rachel Maddow described him as a troll (in the internet sense of the word) because of how he is willing to say things which he knows will piss people off to hear, because he can.

    To be fair though, part of the job of the Supreme Court justices is to be able to say unpopular or upsetting things in the name of seeing justice upheld (for example Brown Versus the Board of Education was wildly unpopular with certain populations.)

    I think that Scalia perhaps like reminding people of that a bit too much.

  • Ygorbla

    One of the most horrific parts is this:

    [The Mail on
    Sunday] asked Pazder: “Does it matter if it was true, or is the fact
    that Michelle believed it happened to her the most important thing?”

    He replied: “Yes, that’s right. It is a real experience. If you talk
    to Michelle today, she will say, ‘That’s what I remember’. We still
    leave the question open. For her it was very real. Every case I hear I
    have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before
    you can come to conclusions. We are all eager to prove or disprove what
    happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”

    …people went to jail because of his book, because people believed in his book. People’s entire lives were ruined. And to him? In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not.

  • The thing is, that is indeed the kind of justice system we have. Our court system is based on the English court system, which is an adversarial system, evolved out of the medieval tradition of trial by combat. The question before the court is to decide which of two opposing sides made the more persuasive argument — it’s explicitly a feature of the adversarial system that the actual objective truth of the matter is secondary to the matter of which side made the better argument. (Scalia, of course, sides with “your being innocent isn’t important,” but the better point is that you being guilty doesn’t matter if the state can’t persuade an impartial jury).

    Now, an adversarial system isn’t the only kind of criminal justice system a society can have, but it’s the one we’ve got.

  • Lori

    That’s the first thing one needs to know about humans.

  • The argument was that guilt was the product of the court decision, regardless of the facts. A legalist, insane opinion, but, hell, it’s Scalia, what do you expect?

  • You and me both. It’s already pretty clear that he has bought into the pie theory — that belief that if we give group X any kind of benefits, we’re diminishing everyone else in the process. His vote on gay marriage has long since been made clear- he thinks that gay marriage would be giving homosexuals undeserved special treatment. Not equal treatment: “preferential treatment.”

    He even used the PIB argument as to why it shouldn’t be allowed: “State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by [legalizing sodomy].”

  • Or, hell, this one: “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

    Judge Scalia doesn’t see a substantial difference between homosexuality and murder. Go figure.

  • Matri

    The second thing you need to know is that American Republicans can, will, and always out-Poe a Poe.

    You can think up the most ridiculous and over-the-top generalization of the right-wing, and three-to-one odds are that Fred has either already blogged about a true event that is even more over-the-top, or he will soon enough.

  • fraser

    In one Florida case a few years back, a prisoner used DNA testing to prove his innocence. The prosecution argument was that since the state, at that time, didn’t have a requirement to free people based on DNA testing, it would Violate The Process to set him free.

  • fraser

    He’s also arguing that the voting rights act by protecting black voters’ rights amounts to a special form of affirmative action.

  • Carstonio

    He realized that his audience wasn’t horrified by his tales of babies mutilated in Satanic rituals. His audience was tantalized by those tales. That audience wanted and wished and needed such implausible horrors to be true. And they still do.

    The same approach used in pulp fiction and pulp non-fiction for decades. Sharing the salacious details of the supposed immorality of gays and lesbians and ethnic minorities while claiming to condemn it, to pander to the self-righteousness of the reader.

  • Mrs Grimble

    During the 60s and 70s, that was the basis of a lot of psychotherapy; namely, if the patient believes an experience/memory to be true, then the therapist must accept it as true for them and proceed on that basis. For example, I read an account of a therapy session in which a patient was discovering the basis of his hatred for his mother; he recalled an early memory of himself falling out of a tree in his garden, calling for his mother – and she didn’t come rushing to him. As far as he was concerned, that explained all his subsequent psychological problems – and the therapist didn’t say a word against this, not even “Well, perhaps your mother might have not heard you.” No, he totally accepted his patient’s belief that his mother didn’t instantly run to him on this occasion because she hated him.
    That whole “the patient is always right” therapy goes some way towards explaining the therapist-induced “satanic” memories.

  • LL

    Yeah, Texas prosecutors love to use bullshit “experts.” Maybe all the prosecutors do, but the ones in Texas seem to be particularly in love with people selling some sort of bogus expertise. The fact that it sends people to death row (or life in a Texas prison) seems to be a small detail to them. I don’t know how they look at themselves in the mirror every day.

  • J_

    *…but also that “ritual abuse” is a topic unsupported by any empirical research.*
    *To the contrary, Harrington writes, there is not now, nor was there in the early Nineties, any mainstream support for, or scientific evidence to demonstrate, that ritual abuse is a real phenomenon.*
    I win.

  • B

    Is anyone reading the comments posted at the Austin Chronicle? The

  • B

    Take two: Is anyone reading the comments posted at the Austin Chronicle? The Satanic Ritual Abuse believers are out in full force.