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Texas continues to exonerate people who were wrongly convicted during 'satanic panic'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Texas is still grappling with the aftermath of a false panic from the 1980s that saw dozens in the state accused of bizarre child sex abuse and satanic rituals. It went so far that it sent innocent people to prison. As Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports, to this day, people are still fighting to clear their records. And a heads-up to listeners, the story does involve allegations of sexual abuse of children and murder.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: With a few strokes of a pen...

(SOUNDBITE OF PEN STROKES ON PAPER)

FLAHIVE: ...Judge Christine Del Prado dismissed the case last week against 75-year-old Melvin Quinney, giving him his good name back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE DEL PRADO: Mr. Quinney, I have signed the dismissal.

FLAHIVE: This was the final courtroom step in Quinney's exoneration. He spent eight years in Texas prisons, had to register as a sex offender and saw his four children pushed into foster care - all for a crime the courts and his family now say never happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEL PRADO: And I thank you, sir, for your attendance. You are now discharged from this court.

(APPLAUSE)

FLAHIVE: In 1991, Quinney's 9-year-old son told a court that his father sexually abused him. Quinney stood accused of leading a satanic cult that murdered children. Now an adult, his son recanted that testimony, saying he was pressured by his mother and her therapist to say those things. Mike Ware is Quinney's lawyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE WARE: This is a good day for justice.

FLAHIVE: Standing on the courthouse steps in San Antonio, Ware says the accusations sound ridiculous now. He's with the Innocence Project of Texas and says during the '80s and '90s, the nation was going through a hysteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARE: Children were being coerced by ill-guided professionals to make these outrageous, demonstrably false accusations that have now been proven false beyond all doubt.

FLAHIVE: According to a 1992 FBI report, hundreds of victims made fantastical and bizarre allegations that offenders had killed people as part of what is now called the satanic panic. Thousands were accused. Far fewer were incarcerated. Ware helped four other San Antonio women get out of prison for similar satanic sex abuse allegations nearly a decade ago. One Austin couple spent years in prison after being accused of abusing children in their day care, at times transporting them by private jet to satanic conclaves. The problem with all these cases was the lack of evidence, says retired FBI agent Ken Lanning.

KEN LANNING: No matter what the police did, no matter how hard they tried, over and over again, they'd (ph) simply was no evidence of certain aspects of these crimes.

FLAHIVE: Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, people were convicted by juries based on the testimony of therapists and children. Lanning says investigators pushed the cases because they bought into the false satanic conspiracy.

LANNING: And a lot of them, it grew out of their personal, religious beliefs that this is what they believe - that evil in the world, the devil was behind it.

FLAHIVE: Quinney's ex-wife had become enraptured in religion. She was also mentally ill. After the exoneration, Quinney's son John Parker's eyes are wet with tears. He says he still feels guilt over his role, but he has forgiven his deceased mother.

JOHN PARKER: Instead of getting the help with the real mental problems she was experiencing, she was, you know, persuaded and kept mentally ill with pseudoscience and superstition.

FLAHIVE: Melvin Quinney says, yes, he was wrongfully accused, but the impact on his family goes well beyond him. His ex-wife was unable to care for the children, so they were pushed into the state's foster care system, which did a lot of damage.

MELVIN QUINNEY: Yeah, I was a victim. So what? My four children were the real victims in this whole fiasco that we went through.

FLAHIVE: After 30 years, he says he hopes the final dismissal helps the family continue to heal. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE (FEAT. KARRIEM RIGGINS AND RIVER TIBER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.