Dan and Fran Keller, who spent more than 21 years in prison after they were accused of sexually abusing children during supposed satanic rituals at their South Austin day care facility, will receive $3.4 million from a state fund for those wrongly convicted of crimes.
Shortly after receiving the news Tuesday, an ecstatic Fran Keller said they will no longer have to live on the brink of destitution, unable to find jobs at their ages and with their convictions, even if overturned by the state’s highest criminal court.
“This means we don’t have to worry about pinching pennies on Social Security, and late bills. It means we will actually be free. We can start living — and no more nightmares,” said Fran Keller, 67.
Their to-do list includes buying a house, vehicle, health insurance and better hearing aids for Dan Keller, 75.
The Kellers’ lawyer, Keith Hampton, said the couple will collect two checks totaling $3.44 million Wednesday at the state comptroller’s office, which administers the compensation fund.
“They’re happy, and I’m happy for them,” said Hampton, who worked for no charge in getting the Kellers released and declared innocent.
The Kellers received news of the payments as they stood outside the Williamson County Jail on Tuesday in support of Greg Kelley, who was to be released on bond.
Kelley, serving a 25-year sentence on a child sexual assault charge, has maintained his innocence and also is being represented by Hampton, who phoned the Kellers with news of the state payments while he was inside the jail arranging Kelley’s release.
The state’s wrongful conviction compensation fund pays $80,000 for each year in prison, plus a matching annuity that provides annual payments of 5 percent interest as long as the recipient is alive and isn’t convicted of a felony.
The Keller case made national news after three children accused them in 1991 of leading ghastly satanic rituals that supposedly included desecrated graves, videotaped orgies, dismembered babies and tortured pets. No evidence of such activities was discovered at their in-home day care facility, and the case against them collapsed about two decades later when the only physical evidence of abuse was acknowledged as a mistake by the examining physician.
Freed on signature bonds in 2013, the Kellers launched an effort to clear their names.
Hampton argued that the Kellers were the victims of “satanic panic” — a belief that swept the nation in the early 1990s that a national network of secretive cults was preying upon day care children for sex and other horrors.
The Kellers also were harmed, he argued, by the combined efforts of inept therapists, gullible police and an investigation that spiraled out of control, producing a suspect list of 26 ritual abusers, including many of the Kellers’ neighbors and a respected Austin police captain.
Children who reported no problems at the day care were ignored, and leading psychologists and criminology professors provided affidavits saying improper interview techniques and subtle encouragement by therapists produced believable-but-false memories in the children who accused the Kellers of abuse.
Taped interviews of a Keller accuser, a 3-year-old girl, made at the Travis County sheriff’s office have since been used in lectures by a top specialist in assessing and treating crime victims to illustrate common interviewing mistakes.
Travis County prosecutors, however, had pushed back, arguing that the Kellers failed to produce sufficient proof of innocence, such as an ironclad alibi or DNA evidence.
In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals split the difference, overturning the Kellers’ convictions but declining to declare the couple innocent.
The couple’s circumstances changed in June, when Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore filed court documents that dropped all charges and declared the Kellers “actually innocent” under the law. After an extensive review, it was clear that the Kellers’ innocence claim should be supported in the interest of justice, Moore said at the time.
Now adults, several of the children who accused the Kellers opposed the move, according to Moore and family members.