The Trials of the Edenton Seven, or How Joseph Goebbels Became the Standard for North Carolina Justice

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While the Duke non-rape, non-kidnapping, and non-sexual assault case continues to dominate the "justice" system of the State of North Carolina, it hardly is the first wrongful prosecution to have happened there. Given that charges almost certainly will be dropped against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans, the results will not be as tragic as they have been for other people there who not only have been wrongfully prosecuted, but also wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

In this article, I will deal with one infamous case, the Little Rascals Day Care prosecutions which dominated the North Carolina courts in the early 1990s, becoming the most expensive criminal case in state history. This was the case that heightened my own interest in wrongful prosecutions as it was a complete and utter hoax, yet the State of North Carolina was able to use its power to destroy innocent lives, throw people in prison, separate children from parents, and persecute people whose only crime was being the target of dishonest people.

Because no one who originally was charged in this case is in prison today, people might be tempted to say "the system worked," but that would be untrue. The system "worked," all right, but it "worked" for prosecutors, judges, state social workers, and lawyers. It did not work for those individuals who were wrongfully charged with crimes they never committed — or that even happened.

The "Big Lie"

In my title, I reference Joseph Goebbels, who was the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda for the National Socialist regime under Adolph Hitler. One of the ways that Goebbels would help to whip up hysteria against the Jews was to engage what he called "The Big Lie." The theory behind it was this: People would discount the extreme portions of his propaganda, but they also would conclude that there must be something to it, or the government would not go to such efforts to make the statements that it did.

Goebbels actually developed his techniques from what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, in which Hitler declared that the bigger the lie, the more credibility it would have. Wikipedia explains it in the following way:

This technique, he (Hitler) believed, consisted of telling a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. The first documented use of the phrase “big lie” is in the corresponding passage: “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility.”

In pursuing the Little Rascals case, the State of North Carolina decided to use the same techniques. As I will point out, the testimony given by the alleged "child victims" of abuse was so fanciful and so unbelievable that jurors would discount much of it, but then conclude that "something happened" or else the state would not be pursuing the charges. Thus, in the end, North Carolina jurors sent people to prison for life on the basis of "something happened," even if they could not define just what that "something" was.

The Little Rascals case began in early 1989, when one parent’s anger at the owners of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, turned into questioning other parents about the place. The parent spoke to a police investigator, and the perfect storm then began.

Some Edenton police officers and others had recently attended a seminar in which the subject was ritualistic child abuse by Satanist cults. When the investigator heard a complaint from the parent that Robert Kelley and his wife, Betsy Kelly, might be "playing doctor" with her child, the abuse machinery then kicked in, and nothing could stop it.

On the surface, there was nothing that reflected any kind of child abuse at Little Rascals, and especially ritualistic child abuse and molestation. First, the day care center, like most others, had people coming in and out all the time, and no one ever noticed anything out of the ordinary. Second, the layout of the day care center itself did not lend itself to secret rooms or places where such abuse could have taken place without at least some adults having noticed.

Nonetheless, as often would happen in such cases, the very absence of evidence was proof that "something" was going on. Moreover, the Kellys attended a local Baptist church and were active church members and had never been involved in any satanic cults, or at least no one ever knew them to be secret Satanists. Yet, the very fact that no one knew them to be Satanists, or that no one ever had witnessed any such behavior from them "proved" in the minds of police investigators that the Kellys and the others who worked at the day care center were a satanic cult, since everyone knew that Satanists worked in secret.

If this sounds to be Orwellian, one is correct. The Edenton police were operating upon the same wavelength that medieval witch-hunters functioned. At times, witch-hunters would weight down an accused witch and throw the hapless person into a pond or river. If the person drowned, it was proof that he or she was not a witch. However, if the person escaped, that was proof that the person was a witch. In the same vein, investigators in the Little Rascals case held that if no physical evidence could be found, that proved the accused to be guilty, since they must have been very clever about how they hid the evidence. Physical evidence was "proof" of abuse, and, at the same time, the absence of physical evidence also was proof of abuse.

Soon afterward, state social workers stepped in with interviews of the children. The pattern was depressingly familiar, social workers having learned from previous cases such as the McMartin case in California and Janet Reno’s various witch hunts when she was state’s attorney for Dade County, Florida. Children would deny they had been abused, but then after being badgered by social workers and parents, they ultimately would "disclose" with fantastic stories.

Operating under the "children don’t lie" mantra, social workers found some fantastic things. As Rael Jean Issac wrote:

Sample allegations by the children: they were taken aboard a space ship and abused in outer space; “Mr. Bob” [Kelly] killed babies with a gun; abused on a ship while trained sharks swam around the boat.

There also were the usual accounts that seemed to appear at all of these witch hunts across the country. Included in the litany were a "magic room" where all sorts of abuse happened, the sticking of swords into the rectums of children — but leaving absolutely no physical evidence — cooking babies in microwave ovens, having children eat human feces and drink urine — with no effects whatsoever.

Children who continued to say that nothing happened would be badgered with "Billy already has said that such-and-such happened. You don’t want to keep on lying, do you?" Children who finally "disclosed" would be given hugs from their parents and praise from the social workers, so the four- and-five-year-old children soon learned what behaviors would be rewarded, and what would be scorned. They acted accordingly.

Interestingly, some parents elected to have their children interviewed by private counselors who determined that nothing had happened. Indeed, it was the State of North Carolina itself that was going all-out to promote a hoax, and once the state machinery went into motion, nothing could stop it. The newspapers across North Carolina and elsewhere dutifully repeated what police and prosecutors told them. By the spring of 1989, seven people were charged, including the Kellys, Dawn Wilson, Shelly Stone, Darlene Harris and Robin Byrum. The seventh person charged was Scott Privott, the owner of a video store and personal friend of Bob Kelly.

The Edenton Seven were not the only alleged child molesters identified by the children. Others, including people well up in Edenton’s police department and city government also were pointed out, but authorities decided that in those cases, the children were "confused."

Sham Trials

Bond was set so high that none of the seven could post it, so all languished in prison, and because North Carolina does not require speedy trials, all spent several years being incarcerated, where they were attacked and abused by other prisoners because they were "child molesters." None were wealthy, so they could not afford good counsel, but given the legal travesties that had transpired and that would be transpiring, Clarence Darrow himself could not have gained an acquittal.

Bob Kelly went on trial in July 1991, with the trial lasting until April 1992, when a jury convicted him of 99 counts of child molestation. Kelly was given 12 life sentences. As Ofra Bikel, who did an outstanding series for PBS’s "Frontline," pointed out, the trial itself was a sham. The judge was hostile to Kelly (which was typical in these kinds of trials across the country) and made sure that the prosecution always held the upper hand. Jurors and others were enthralled with timid little children on the witness stand clutching teddy bears and expressing fear of "Mr. Bob."

The most zealous of the two state’s prosecutors was Nancy B. Lamb, who saw herself as the avenger of the children and who worked herself into near-rages during the trial. The press glowingly wrote of the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, prosecutor as a woman with "bobbed hair and flashing eyes," as thought that gave legitimacy to the nonsense she was spreading.

As for the jurors, they decided that since the trial had lasted so long, it was paramount that they come to a unanimous decision. Yet, what to do about the parts of the testimony that were so fantastic as to defy belief? Prosecutors had shown them how in declaring during closing arguments:

You don’t have to wonder whether there was real or pretend snakes. We don’t have to prove whether the snakes, the kids talked about, were real or pretend. Whether the animals that they talked about or puppets as some of the children said, whether they were real. None of that has to be proved to you beyond a reasonable doubt. And none of that information is elements of the case.

In other words, believe what you want and discount what you want, since it is all truthful, except that which is not truthful, but don’t worry about truth. Most jurors bought the nonsense, along with "children don’t lie." But prosecutors had not convinced three of the jurors, but after being badgered by the others, the three gave in. After the trial, each told "Frontline" that they regretted their decisions and believe that a travesty of justice had taken place.

Even before the trials, prosecutors had told each defendant that if he or she would testify against one of the others, that person would face greatly reduced charged, as well as instant freedom, since all of them were being held in prison because they could not make bond. None would agree to such terms, each staunchly holding to their own innocence and a stated belief "in the system." Wilson told Lamb to "Get your own patsy."

The next year, Dawn Wilson also was convicted and sentence to life in prison. During closing arguments, as Wilson held her little girl on her lap, Lamb told the jury that Wilson really did not love her own child, but was simply putting on a show for the jurors. Subsequently, the jurors meekly acquiesced to the demands of the State of North Carolina.

In all the cases, jurors admitted to falling to the "big lie." During interviews, they agreed that many, if not most, of the stories told were too fantastic to be true, but, as one juror told "Frontline," "Something must have happened."

Prosecutors also used different tactics than had been undertaken in the McMartin investigations. There had been no convictions in the McMartin case in part because the "disclosure" sessions with children and social workers had been videotaped. After the first McMartin trial ended, many jurors said they believed that the children had been coerced into giving their testimony, which made it unbelievable.

To make sure that did not happen, only a bare sketch of what occurred during the sessions between state social workers and the children were given. There were no videotapes and no transcripts of everything that was said. It was just Johnny saying something like "Mr. Bob did this and that" without any embellishment.

Lamb, writing boastfully in The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, said that they made sure that jurors would not see how the "disclosures" were made, just that they would only read what social workers wrote down. In other words, in a case where how the "evidence" was gathered was as important as the "evidence" itself, the State of North Carolina made sure that deception would be the rule.

Betsy Kelly and Scott Privott, both seeing how Bob Kelly and Wilson had been railroaded, agreed to plead nolo contendere in 1994. At their sentencing, each proclaimed innocence but said that they no longer had confidence in the system to treat them with justice. Despite the supposed seriousness of their "crimes," each served only one more year on top of the many years they had spent because they could not make bond.

Bob Kelly and Wilson appealed, and in 1995, appellate courts of North Carolina overturned their convictions, citing numerous errors made by the judge and prosecution at the trials. Although the state threatened to charge them again and even briefly brought new charges against Kelly, ultimately the state dropped all charges in 1997. Betsy Kelly and Bob divorced, and now she and Privott must register as sexual offenders wherever they go.

Aftermath

When the State of North Carolina, through District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, pressed rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault charged against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans, I was not surprised. Here is a state that openly promoted a hoax, and spent millions of dollars to promote that hoax and wrongfully imprison people.

None of the defendants in the Little Rascals case has received as much as an apology from the state, and while they were financially ruined, the state never compensated any of them a penny. Being the promoter of the "Big Lie" means never having to admit to the truth.

Thus, in the Duke case, the State of North Carolina once again promotes the "Big Lie" and expects us to believe a number of things. First, it expects us to believe all of the stories told by Crystal Gail Mangum, even though they are mutually exclusive. Second, until the Friday before Christmas, it expected us to believe that it was possible for men to rape a woman and force oral sex on her, ejaculate without condoms into her various orifices, and yet leave absolutely no trace of DNA.

Even now, the state expects us to believe that Seligmann and Finnerty could be in two places at one time.

Even now, the State of North Carolina expects us to believe that three men could be involved in the kind of brutal sexual assault as Mangum described to police and to Nifong’s chief investigator, Linwood Wilson, and yet leave absolutely no physical evidence whatsoever.

Even now, the State of North Carolina expects us to believe that three strong young men beat Mangum with their fists and choked her for more than 30 minutes, but left no visible injuries.

Even now, the State of North Carolina expects us to believe that in the infamous photo ID session in early April, Mangum was being truthful when she pointed out three men, went into excruciating detail about what each of them did to her, and then in December when she told a very different story, that both accounts are equally true, even though they are mutually exclusive.

Yes, thanks to the North Carolina Bar Association bringing charges against Nifong, he is off the case. However, at this very moment, the State of North Carolina through different prosecutors still is pursuing kidnapping and sexual assault charges and looking to bring this farce to trial.

Nifong is in disgrace and faces charges not only of making unwarranted statements, but also lying to judges and to the Bar Association investigators about the hiding of exculpatory DNA evidence. Unfortunately, Nancy Lamb still practices law in Elizabeth City, still spinning nonsense to jurors, and still insisting that the Edenton Seven really did have a "magic room," microwaved babies, and did all sorts of terrible things in secret.

And, unfortunately, the State of North Carolina still looks to convict innocent people and to throw them into prison and tell the rest of us that justice is being done.

January 27, 2007

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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