Habeas Corpus Petition in Infamous Texas Criminal Case Asserts “Actual Innocence”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently granted a petition for habeas corpus relief in one of the most infamous Texas criminal cases of the past few decades. Ex parte Keller, No. WR-36,684-02, opinion (Tex. Crim. App., May 20, 2015). The petitioner and her husband owned and operated a daycare center in Austin, Texas, until they were caught up in what has come to be known as the “Satanic ritual abuse” panic of the 1980s. They spent 21 years in jail for child abuse—based on highly questionable evidence—before the state released them in late 2013. The habeas corpus petition asserted that the conviction was based on false testimony from the state’s expert witness and that the petitioner was innocent of any criminal offense. The court granted the petition on the false testimony claim but rejected the “actual innocence” claim. This decision highlights the bizarre legal view of “innocence” once a person has been convicted of a crime.

In our criminal justice system, “guilt” and “innocence” have very specific meanings that non-lawyers may not always understand. At trial, the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the finder of fact, which could be the judge or a jury, finds that the state has met this burden, it enters a verdict of “guilty.” Otherwise, it enters a verdict of “not guilty.”

A “not guilty” verdict is not the same as a finding of “innocence.” To most prosecutors and law enforcement officials, a “not guilty” verdict only means that the prosecutor failed to convince the jury of a person’s guilt, not that the person is actually innocent of the offense. The state tends to apply a much broader definition of “guilty,” though—often taking a “guilty” verdict as proof that a person committed the offense, not merely that the state met its burden of proof. “Actual innocence” thus becomes just one possible argument a defendant could raise on appeal or in a habeas petition, which might not even provide sufficient grounds, by itself, to reverse a conviction. See Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 400 (1993).

The Keller case is part of a bizarre chapter of this nation’s history. A combination of sensational allegations, fear, and bad science resulted in about 100 criminal cases around the country for alleged child abuse, all supposedly connected to an underground network of Satan-worshipping cults. The evidence presented against Mr. and Mrs. Keller appears to be the product of children with wild imaginations, including testimony about a plane trip to Mexico, “where [the children] were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day-care facility.” Keller, conc. op. at 2 (Johnson, J. concurring). A jury nevertheless convicted them of child abuse in 1992.

The state released the Kellers from prison in 2013 after the state’s expert witness recanted. In May 2015, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted habeas relief on the grounds that the conviction was based on false testimony. It denied, however, the claim of actual innocence, offering no explanation except “the trial court’s findings and this Court’s independent review of the record.” Keller, op. at 2. This leaves the Kellers free from prison but still “guilty” in the eyes of the law. One judge wrote a concurring opinion stating that she would have granted habeas relief on the innocence claim, describing the absurd and fantastical allegations of the state’s many witnesses.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, defends the rights of people charged with white-collar and drug offenses in west Texas under state and federal law. To schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled criminal justice advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Appellate Court Ruling Considers Whether Confession Was “Voluntary,” Reviews Implications for Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 13, 2015

Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2014

Officer Testimony Trumps Video Evidence, Court Holds, in Establishing Probable Cause for Traffic Stop, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 25, 2014


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