PUBLISHED:September 18, 2018

“Little Rascals Daycare” archive at Duke Law School documents how wrongful convictions get started

Lew Powell is an unlikely Duke Law School benefactor, having never attended law school or Duke itself. Nor did his donation involve writing a check, but instead came in the form of almost two dozen file boxes delivered from his Charlotte home in the back of his Subaru.

Inside those boxes were court documents and materials related to the Little Rascals Daycare case, which beginning in 1989 roiled the small Eastern North Carolina town of Edenton with lurid and, ultimately, unfounded, accusations of toddlers and preschoolers being molested while in the care of daycare teachers. It was one of multiple cases involving false allegations of child sexual abuse and Satanic rituals performed by daycare providers that swept the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Little Rascals Daycare Case Papers are now in the permanent collection of the J. Michael Goodson Law Library. “We thank Mr. Powell for the generous donation, and are proud to provide access to this important archival collection,” said Acting Interim Director Jennifer L. Behrens. “Much has been written about the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s, but these materials give researchers a clearer picture of how these wrongful convictions unfolded in the courtroom and in the media.”

Lee Cloninger, the library’s digital and archival initiatives associate, processed nearly 12,000 items in the archival collection and has created an online finding aid to the contents.

Collection intended to keep case “factually clear”

Powell, a retired journalist whose career included 34 years as a reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer, had long been collecting information about the criminal case, hoping to bring public attention back to irregularities in its investigation and prosecution, which he believes culminated in a gross miscarriage of justice. Chief among them were the accusations themselves, which were elicited through questionable means. Young children who attended Little Rascals were probed by parents and therapists, in ways now seen as leading, and eventually testified about ritualistic sexual abuse, babies being killed, hot air balloon rides, and victims thrown overboard from boats.

While doubts about the veracity of the accusations were raised at the time, including through a multi-part investigation by the PBS documentary series “Frontline,” seven defendants were charged between 1989 and 1997, including co-owners Betsy and Bob Kelly. Powell’s collection includes the transcript of Bob Kelly’s criminal trial, at that time the longest and costliest in North Carolina’s history. It is now widely seen as a prime example of how community hysteria can lead to injustice.

From the start, the outcome looked grim for the defendants. Bob Kelly’s first lawyer stepped down when police told him that his child was identified by another child as a potential victim. A juror took a copy of a magazine with an article about child molestation into deliberations. Some children’s accusations were teased out, over months, by police-recommended therapists, who then refreshed child witnesses’ memories before testifying at the trial held three years after the initial arrests.

“There was something about this case that got to be a burr under my saddle,” said Powell, who began researching it after he retired in 2009, contacting former defendants and asking what had happened to them in years since the charges were dropped.

All of those charged in the case maintained their innocence from the beginning and never brokered plea deals to testify against others in exchange for lighter sentences. The Kellys, who later divorced, were ultimately convicted, Bob by a jury and Betsy through a plea deal in which she did not admit guilt but was promised a release from prison. Dawn Wilson, a daycare cook who turned down plea offers and gave birth to a son while in jail, was also convicted at trial. A friend of Kelly’s, Scott Privott, agreed to a plea deal without admitting guilt years after he was indicted to avoid serving additional prison time. Two other daycare workers, Shelley Stone and Robin Byrum, and a third woman without any prior connection to the daycare, Darlene Harris, were also charged in the case but eventually had their charges dropped.

In 1995, Bob Kelly was freed after more than six years of incarceration after a panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously found the prosecution to be seriously flawed and overturned the 99 charges and 12 life sentences against him, ordering a new trial. Wilson’s conviction was also set aside. They were never retried — prosecutors dismissed all charges in 1997 — but Betsy Kelly and Privott, who entered pleas, still have convictions of committing sex crimes on children on their records.

“None of them have ever received any type of apology from the state, from the therapists, and from the parents,” Powell said. Several of the defendants shy away from publicity, having moved on with their lives. He’s hoping the seven defendants will one day be declared innocent, in the same way the Duke Lacrosse players were proclaimed innocent in 2007 by then-N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, now the state’s governor. “I’m interested in keeping the memory of the case alive and factually clear.”

Kelly, now 70 and remarried, blames prosecutorial zeal for the frenzy that nearly robbed him of his life, and said he believes there are many others like him accused of crimes never committed. He hopes the Duke Law archive will show future generations what went wrong in his case and in Edenton, and emphasize what can happen to a person who is falsely accused of a crime.

The effects of being jailed, along with being viewed as a child molester, are still with him. He doesn’t trust people as he once did, especially police and judicial officers, he said. “This is not over for me.” While he doubts he’ll ever hear words of apology himself, he thinks that one day there will be some type of official acknowledgement of what went wrong.

A valuable record of unchecked allegations

Securing exonerations for the Little Rascals defendants would be an uphill battle, said Theresa Newman ’88, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, whose work with her colleagues and students led Powell to identify Duke Law as the right home for his archive. Lawyers can’t ask for evidence to be retested or present newly-discovered confessions from suspects to disprove original prosecutions. The crimes alleged in the Little Rascals case don’t have any DNA or physical evidence to dispel prosecutors’ theories based on long-ago testimony from young children. “You have to prove how someone got convicted when there was no crime,” said Newman, the Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law.

But Powell’s collection offers scholars an invaluable opportunity to look back and read first-hand documents to find out how the investigation spiraled into a frenzy that swept up so many in its path, she said. “It could show how allegations can arise and go unchecked from person to person to person and then all the way through the system.”

Even in a time period with multiple cases across the country spelling out shocking allegations of sexual abuse, the Edenton daycare prosecution stood out, she added. “The Little Rascals case had some of the most fantastical allegations.” — Sarah Ovaska-Few