AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dan and Fran Keller, accused of the satanic and ritual abuse of children in their care, served 23 years out of their 48 year sentence when a court ruled they didn’t get a fair trial and released them early in 2013. On Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore formally dismissed the cases against them.
According to the motion to dismiss, there is “no credible evidence” that the Kellers, now 75 and 67 respectively, committed the crimes they were accused of, including sexually abusing the children at their day care in 1991.
The Kellers appealed their sentencing after the medical doctor who examined a child who made accusations against them took back what he said on the stand about injuries the child had sustained. The court found his original testimony to be false after a 2013 interview.
“Without that physical corroboration and because the victim no longer recalls any of the events of which the Kellers are accused, the cases are not prosecutable and must be dismissed,” Moore said. “Moreover, because that medical corroboration was critical to the state’s case at trial, it is my conclusion that I am obligated under the provisions of the [Tim Cole] Act to make this motion.”
The Tim Cole Act states that the Kellers are entitled to compensation of $80,000 for each year of incarceration—half paid as a lump sum, and half paid out over their lifetime as an annuity.
“It’s not like an elephant off your shoulder, it’s like 10,000 elephants off your shoulder.”
In an interview Tuesday morning, Moore said the decision to dismiss the charges and declare the Kellers “actually innocent under the law” was similar to judgments her office makes “every day about whether we’ve got enough evidence to move forward on a case.”
“Actual innocence” is a legal term, she said. “And it means that basically, a reasonable juror would not convict on the evidence that remains after you take out the false testimony.”
Moore, who took office in January, reviewed case files to make her decision. She wouldn’t say whether she thought her predecessors made mistakes in bringing the case forward or whether she would have fought to put the Kellers in jail given the available evidence if she were district attorney at the time.
The evidence available now, she said, isn’t compelling, but she stopped short of saying whether or not she believes the Kellers are definitely innocent.
“I didn’t take that burden on,” she said. “Going back 26 years and trying to figure out what actually happened in this case was not, to me, a fruitful use of my time.”
“What I would say to [the Kellers] directly,” Moore said, “is I hope that this, that by making this decision, that everyone can move on now. It’s been pending for a very long time and I think that is unfortunate.”
The Kellers spoke with KXAN at the time about the accusations against them and their time in prison. “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.”
The family looks ahead
An old and battered flag hangs outside the Kellers’ front door at their home in New Braunfels. “It’s what we call the battle flag of exoneration and it’s been up ever since,” said the couple’s daughter, Brenda Warren.
The family hung the flag in 2013 shortly after Dan and Fran were released from prison. “I just can’t understand why it took so long to get exonerated,” said Warren.
Warren says her parents never lost hope and have been fighting to prove their innocence since day one. “It was a Salem witch hunt all over again, you know?” she said. “It was always kind of a cliche to talk about before, but now I look at it in a whole new way and so do my parents.”
Warren was only 22 years old when her parents were each sentenced to 48 years in prison. She says they missed every major milestone in her life including her wedding and the birth of her children. “It was absolutely devastating.”
“It was absolutely devastating.”
Warren moved in with her parents in March. She says she will often see her father reminiscing alone in his bedroom. “I will see him pull a picture down of him about the age he was before all this happened. My dad is a really religious man. I’ve watched him talk to God like, ‘Lord, where did I go?’ Little things like that throughout these years waiting on exoneration is what makes this day great.”
Warren says she was shopping on Monday when she got the call that the family had been waiting on for years. “I said, ‘Dad, this isn’t something you would call me and tease me about, right?’ and he said, ‘no daughter, we’re being exonerated!’ I was just laughing and crying all at the same time. I was so happy for them to have all this over with,” said Warren.
Warren thanks the district attorney and the family’s attorney, Keith Hampton. She says this decision is finally bringing peace to her family.
“They can finally sleep without nightmares,” she said. “It’s not like an elephant off your shoulder, it’s like 10,000 elephants off your shoulder.”
Believing in the couple’s innocence
Supporters of the Kellers reached out to KXAN Tuesday to express their excitement about the development at the Travis Co. DA’s Office.
“I’m just happy that they’re finally found innocent. I just wish it could have been a long time ago,” explained Diana McManus.
McManus says her sons attended the couple’s day care at their Oak Hill home around the time they were arrested. She says the boys were around the ages of four and eight at the time. After hearing the allegations against them, she said she couldn’t believe it.
“I never suspected anything. They always seemed happy when I picked them up,” said McManus.
Shortly after the couple was arrested, the mother says a law enforcement officer asked to interview her boys. She says she allowed them to do so.
“What [the officer] got was really inconclusive. Then he asked me if I wanted to testify against them in court. I felt like I didn’t want to be responsible for sending an innocent person to prison. I had a feeling they were innocent,” McManus said. “I just wish that I could have maybe testified in their behalf at court because I got [asked] to testify against them and I wouldn’t. But I would have gone to put in a good word for them if I had been asked.”
McManus says she’s known all these years they were innocent.
“Then I read about the satanic rituals and I thought, ‘No, no, there’s no way they were involved with anything like that,'” continued McManus. “I don’t believe at all that they did anything wrong.”
However, an emergency room doctor’s initial testimony at trial may have led jurors to believe otherwise. That doctor provided the only physical evidence in the case.
In August 2013, the doctor recanted his testimony, saying he now believed the internal injuries on the 3-year-old accuser could have been caused by something other than sexual abuse. Legal experts tell KXAN there’s no chance the doctor will be held liable in this case because his testimony was based on misinformation — it was the “prevailing medical belief of the day.”
McManus says she can’t help but think how unfair the situation is for the Kellers. She says the judicial system is flawed.
“They should have never been in prison to begin with, and then to be spending like over twenty years in prison, I think is horrific,” she said. “They deserve to live out the best they can. The rest of their lives.”
State law makes the Kellers eligible for reimbursements of $80,000 for each of the 23 years they spent behind bars.