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Innocence Lost (Landmark Day Care Case)

Article Index
Innocence Lost (Landmark Day Care Case)
Therapeutic Discernment
Proving Innocence
Jury Fallibility
Child Abuse Industry
Stretched Credibility

by Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1995 by Gretchen Passantino.

Permission is granted for non-commercial replication of or excerpting from this material, provided (1) that appropriate notice is included of its copyright status, as above, and (2) that an appropriate reference to the Answers In Action name, address and phone number be included with all replicated and excerpted material.

This article first appeared in Cornerstone Magazine

The number of sex abuse charges, 429, was staggering. Seven defendants were charged with sexually abusing as many as 90 children, almost all of whom were defenseless, trusting toddlers and preschoolers at the time they were allegedly abused (fall of 1988). Prosecutors charged that Robert and Elizabeth (Betsy) Kelly, owners and operators of the Little Rascals day-care center in Edenton, North Carolina, orchestrated the systematic and horrendous physical and sexual abuse of their small clients by other day-care workers and another local businessman. Of the seven defendants, two, Robert Kelly and day-care worker Dawn Wilson, were tried and convicted in their criminal jury trials: Robert was convicted of 99 counts and sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences; Dawn Wilson was convicted on 5 counts and sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 20 years. Appeals are pending in both cases. Robert's wife Betsy pled guilty to lesser charges in a desperate bid for a reduced sentence that would allow their daughter at least one parent for at least the latter part of her childhood. The remaining four defendants will be tried beginning late in 1994. But in the midst of one of the longest, most complex and expensive child abuse trials, justice disappeared and the innocent -- children and defendants -- suffered irreparable harm.

There was no corroborating physical evidence of any of the alleged criminal incidents. There was not a single adult eye witness to any of the hundreds of alleged incidents. The children's testimonies were inconsistent, vague, contradictory, and clearly coached by parents and therapists. Jurors on Kelly's trial violated the judge's orders, and several now say they were pressured into voting for conviction despite their own beliefs in Kelly's innocence. Jurors on Wilson's trial agreed there was no hard evidence and that the children's testimonies were unbelievable, and that the only persuasive evidence was uncorroborated notes made by one therapist early in the investigation.

Robert Kelly, unless his appeal is successful, will never be free of prison to be with his wife and daughter. Dawn Wilson will not be free until long after her six year old daughter is an adult. Betsy Kelly pled guilty to reduced charges to salvage at least some part of her daughter's childhood. Co-defendant and fellow day-care worker Robin Byrum faces a fate similar to that of Dawn Wilson. Video store owner Scott Privet, who said his only connection to the Kellys was that he rented them videos, faces a trial that could culminate in his incarceration for most of the rest of his adult life.

How did such a nightmare develop? The answer lies in four current but false social assumptions that have combined to create a climate where rumor and hysteria devastate innocent lives: (1) therapists can always discover truth in child abuse cases; (2) those accused of child abuse are guilty unless they can prove their innocence; (3) any unanimous jury verdict must be accurate; and (4) child abuse conspiracies are common and almost undetectable.