Fran and Dan Keller can’t stop holding hands. After 21 years apart and in prison for a crime they say they did not commit, the former Austin daycare owners have fallen easily back in to the loving relationship they had before their nightmare began in 1991.
“I kept in my heart what she looked like,” Dan said.
That summer, a three-year-old girl at Fran’s Day Care in Oak Hill accused Dan of sexual abuse. Within weeks, more children, all patients of the same child psychologist, made similar claims against both of the Kellers. They were ultimately accused of the satanic, ritual abuse of the children in their care.
“I think they were coerced into making allegations,” said Fran. “Their parents, they were taking them to psychologists. I think the psychologists coerced them into thinking and saying things because the child is not going to say something that didn’t happen. The child is going to listen to who is talking and the seed is planted.”
During their six-day trial, an emergency room medical doctor testified as the prosecution’s expert and provided the only physical evidence in the case. Dr. Michael Mouw, who examined the three-year-old accuser, said she had internal injuries that could only be caused by physical abuse.
Dan recalled thinking there was no way they would be convicted because the original accuser repeatedly denied the abuse while testifying at trial.
“I felt like jumping up and saying look, we didn’t do nothing,” Dan said.
But the Kellers were both convicted and sentenced to 48 years in prison.
“I felt sick,” Fran remembers of that moment. “Leaving the courtroom, we were going down the stairs, and I passed out. They had to take me to the infirmary. I couldn’t believe it.”
Struggling in Prison
“You try to fit in. You try to get with the strongest groups for protection with this type of crime. Your life is threatened,” said Fran. “It’s not something I’d wish on anybody, especially if they’re innocent. It’s hell to go through.”
Dan remembers a time in prison when some fellow inmates threatened to throw him over a third story railing, before a fellow inmate, who believed in his innocence, intervened and likely saved his life.
“Some of the guards, they treated me like trash. One guard said I ought to be locked up and tear gassed every day,” Dan said.
He tried to make the best of his time in prison, and became an accomplished artist.
“One day in prison I said I’ve got to do something different, so I said I’m going to take coffee and cue tips and try to draw with them, and that’s what I did and some of the guys in prison said, ‘Man, that’s good. How much you want for that?’ I said, ‘What I want for it, you’re not going to pay,’” Dan laughed.
Appeal and Release
After two decades of professing their innocence, the Kellers got a new attorney, Keith Hampton. In late 2013, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg agreed the Kellers did not receive a fair trial, because the prosecution’s expert witness, Dr. Mouw, recanted his testimony. He now believed the internal “injuries” he observed on the three-year-old accuser could have been caused by something other than sexual abuse.
Lehmberg agreed to release the Kellers on bond while an appeals court considers their case. That decision could still be months away.
“They pointed to me and, whew, tears came to my eyes, and I was happy,” Dan said. “I gave most of my stuff away to help the people who didn’t get nothing.”
The first few years in prison, the Kellers were allowed to exchange photographs, until the Texas prison system banned that practice and they had to rely on letters and their memories to keep in touch. They were reunited on December 5, 2013, outside the Travis County Courthouse when Dan was released from prison, 10 days after Fran.
“I saw Fran and my heart lit up,” Dan said. “I want it to be over, so we can go on with our lives. Hope it’s soon. I hope it’s soon.”
The Next Steps
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The Kellers have not been exonerated and could be re-tried in Travis County. Lehmberg said she would not comment on the case until the appeals court makes a ruling. The Kellers’ attorney is asking the court to uphold the ruling that his clients did not receive a fair trial and to go a step further and overturn their convictions so they may receive compensation from the State of Texas for wrongful imprisonment. That is rare in cases where DNA is not involved.
“I’m angry at the judicial system,” Fran said. “How people hide evidence, how the juries don’t listen, trash science, people that aren’t experts and all this put together. I’m angry at the system. Texas did this. Their system did this. There’s too many exonerees. There’s too many people locked up in prison for something they didn’t do and it’s the system that’s doing this.”
Through an open records request to the Office of the State Comptroller, KXAN learned Texas has exonerated 94 people and paid out $64.6 million to exonerees. The majority of those were in Dallas County. In Central Texas, there have been one each in Williamson and Travis Counties.
The Williams County case of Michael Morton garnered national attention when he was exonerated in the murder of his wife in 2011.