The Wrongful Convictions blog has pointed out a careful and well-researched article by Michael Barajas at the San Antonio Current, featuring four women found guilty in 1997 and 1998 of aggravated sexual assault on two sisters, 7 and 9 years old at the time. During a week-long visit with their aunt, prosecutors said, in between trips to the pool and to Walmart, the girls had been held down by the women and raped repeatedly with small objects: syringes, vials of white powder, a gun.
Two years ago the Innocence Project of Texas took up the cases of the “San Antonio Four,” a group of friends who have maintained their innocence throughout long prison terms. One of the presumed victims, now an adult, has recanted her tale, which she says was coerced by her father after the visit.
Dr. Nancy Kellogg, head of the child-abuse unit at the Univeristy of Texas Health Science Center, testified during the trials that the thickness of the sisters’ hymens was a sign of trauma, and that reddening of the younger girl’s hymen was evidence of assault and a white line on the older girl’s was a scar. While child-abuse experts once taught that such findings resulted from sexual encounters, by the late 1990s methodical clinical examinations had revealed that normal hymens come in all shapes and sizes, with features that include streaks, fringes, bumps, and even perforations. The findings listed in Kellogg’s reports are now considered “normal,” as they were by most experts at the time of the trial.
Outside the jury’s hearing, Dr. Kellogg had also testified that the unusual situation of multiple female perpetrators made her think it was a case of Satanic ritual abuse. Like Dr. Kellogg’s opinions on pre-adolescent genitalia, belief in child sexual abuse by Satanic cults had also been discredited by 1997: In 1991, FBI special agent Kenneth Lanning published a landmark statement in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, in which he reflected on eight years of looking unsuccessfully for evidence of the bloody rituals commonly reported in cult-abuse cases. Lanning’s objection was that child sexual abuse is a real problem, and blaming it on elusive cults wastes resources and impedes the credibility of the child-protection movement. For my own research into this arena, see chapter 3 of my upcoming book.
Dr. Kellog was and is an active and respected member of the child-protection community, as chronicled on her UT faculty web profile. She was the lead author on the 2007 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, “Evaluation of Suspected Child Physical Abuse,” published in the journal Pediatrics and quoted regularly. I’m thinking it’s a safe bet that she had read Lanning’s work at the time of her 1997 testimony, and I conclude she had not yet abandoned her faith in the reality of Satanic ritual abuse.
Looking for the silver lining in all this, I propose that the same reluctance to change one’s mind is at work in the shaken baby syndrome debacle. In the 1980s, a wave of pre-school teachers and other caretakers went to jail based on bizarre and lurid tales of cult abuse, and uncounted pre-schools simply closed as the witch hunts spread. Now the Innocence Project of Texas is revisiting one of the last convictions based on medical and social beliefs that were accepted at the time but have since been abandoned. I fear that the misconceptions about shaken baby syndrome will be harder to overcome, both because the concept is more plausible than human sacrifices in secret underground tunnels and because the convictions have been going on for so long that the theory seems to its adherents to have been proven.
The good news since the 1980s is two-fold: First, there is an Innocence Project of Texas willing to re-open these cases in San Antonio, which, like shaken baby prosecutions, hinged on sincere but unproven medical opinion. Second, the community of child-protection experts has changed course in the past, even after sending people to prison on the basis of accepted but flawed common knowledge.
It won’t be easy, but I’m hoping they can do it again.