Newman’s final innocence case is rooted in “Satanic panic” of the 1980s
Of the 10 Wrongful Conviction Clinic clients who have been exonerated, three were imprisoned for decades on the same false charge: child sexual abuse, later determined to never have occurred. In each, errors by investigators and medical experts were compounded by prosecutors’ and courts’ refusal to give credence to the children’s recantations of accusations that had been effectively coerced by adults, notes Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law Theresa Newman, who served as lead counsel in all three cases.
Newman says she never anticipated developing an innocence practice sub-specialty in child sexual abuse, and particularly in cases rooted in a period during the 1980s when across the United States, it was widely but falsely believed that daycare workers, school bus drivers, and others were preying on children, sometimes as part of the practice of Satanism. Her first case of this type involved Michael Alan Parker, who was charged with multiple counts of abuse — allegedly Satanic ritual abuse — of his three children, whose testimony at his trial led to his conviction. New prosecutors, however, determined their testimony to constitute recantations of their initial accusations and the charges against Parker’s seven co-defendants were dropped. Parker was freed on Aug. 26, 2014, in Asheville, after 22 years of incarceration, and his eight life sentences were dismissed.
“After Michael’s release, as I was shaking the judge’s hand and thanking him, he leaned in and said, ‘There is another innocent man who needs help — Junior Chandler,’” Newman recalls. The judge had been a member of the defense bar at the time Chandler was convicted in Western North Carolina and given two life sentences plus 21 years. Coincidentally, a Durham lawyer who had been working on Chandler’s post-conviction claim of innocence had recently asked her to look through the case files and delivered them to her office. “These cases are exhausting and take a lot of work and a lot of investigation, but once the judge had mentioned it, we had to take it,” she says.
Chandler’s conviction and sentence are among the few of the “Satanic panic” verdicts that have yet to be overturned, and his case will be Newman’s final one as lead attorney. It’s also one of her most frustrating, she says.
Chandler, who has been incarcerated for 34 years, was a van driver for a rural, state-funded daycare center. His passengers — 2- to 5-year-old children and cognitively impaired adults — included a couple who had been intimate in their care home. Children’s reports of seeing “married people do married people things” during their trips on mountain roads sparked an investigation that quickly became tainted by the prevailing hysteria, eventually morphing into allegations of children saying they had been repeatedly molested by the couple and by Chandler.
Newman lists just a few irregularities that she calls “the runaway train” of allegations and issues underlying his conviction into question: young children were “persistently, consistently, and repeatedly” subjected to highly suggestive interviews with investigators and experts; the jury never learned of the interviewers’ questions or the children’s answers — often “I don’t know” or “Junior didn’t do it” — instead hearing only inaccurate and misleading summaries from doctors and social workers; the conviction rested on now-debunked criteria for diagnosing sexual abuse and a mistaken belief that children couldn’t lie; and a doctor whose diagnosis of sexual abuse and testimony were key to Chandler’s conviction falsified her credentials, a detail uncovered during the clinic’s investigation.
Under Newman’s supervision, students also charted Chandler’s route and proved that none of the alleged assaults could possibly have taken place. Their “impossibility chart” is now part of the 125-page Motion for Appropriate Relief first filed on Chandler’s behalf in 2019 that includes 40 pages of crucial context of the relevant period.
“We always ask, ‘If this person is innocent, how did this happen,’” explains Newman. “In this case, how was an innocent man ensnared by the medical and psychological science of the times?”
Newman spent a good portion of her final semester at Duke Law summarizing Chandler’s story in supplemental briefing after facing procedural bars to some of his claims. She knows the importance of effective, organized storytelling that will compel the court to focus on the fact a miscarriage of justice has occurred — and acknowledges the often Sisyphean task of doing so.
But she and her clinic colleagues share collective frustration at prosecutors’ and judges’ deep reluctance, even, at times, “utter refusal” to look at post-conviction cases on their merits, even in the face of egregious behavior by authorities or witnesses. In her latest brief, she included a comment made by Fourth Circuit Judge James Wynn, Jr., during a May 2020 hearing that ultimately led to the exoneration of clinic client Ronnie Long, a comment she found especially resonant.
“During oral argument, Judge Wynn asked, ‘What is it about these cases that makes us use procedural tools to blind ourselves to the realities that we all see?,’” Newman recalls. “In the brief, I list the realities that we are using procedural tools to ignore.
“All we want in our cases is honesty on the other side.”
[Listen to members of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic Junior Chandler team talk about the case on the Everyday Injustice podcast.]