Civil Liberties

When Satan Was Spotted at Head Start

A professor tries to rehabilitate ritual-abuse prosecutions of the 1980s and '90s.


Ross Cheit's new book The Witch-Hunt Narrative is a revisionist take on the Satanic panic of the 1980s and '90s, attempting to make the case that "there was not, by any reasonable measure, an epidemic of 'witch hunts' in the 1980s." The National Center for Reason and Justice, which advocates for people it believes have been falsely accused or wrongly convicted of crimes against children, has posted a long rebuttal to Cheit's text. Here's a sample:

Cheit marshals extensive minutiae to "prove" that Nancy Smith, a middle-aged, white Head Start bus driver in the 1980s, was guilty as convicted: that she joined with a black ex-con Joseph Allen to take the children from Head Start and ritually molest them at Smith's and Allen's homes. But he deletes the exculpatory evidence contained in a clemency petition for Smith, filed in 2012 by the Ohio Innocence Project. Cheit glancingly refers to the petition, but not to its meticulously documented contents.

For instance, he goes on at length about the accusing children's knowledge of a pink dress Joseph Allen allegedly wore while molesting them. He does not say that the children were told about items in Allen's home before they were questioned—so it's no surprise they could describe the dress to the police. He does not mention that in the Allen lineup, only one of four of the alleged victims picked Allen. The rest picked other men. Parents can be seen on video whispering into their child's ear while the child was picking from the lineup. One even moved their child's arm toward Allen. Cheit omits the letter from initial lead investigator Tom Cantu to the Ohio Innocence Project (Jan. 25, 2007) stating that he had interviewed the children involved in the complaints and that they all denied that Nancy Smith had done anything to them. Cantu, now a sheriff's deputy in Las Vegas, said he never believed charges were warranted and told his superiors as much.

And Cheit neglects the most glaring piece of evidence of Smith's and Allen's innocence: Head Start attendance records, attached in an appendix to the clemency petition, show the children were at preschool on the days and times they were supposedly at Smith's and Allen's homes being molested.

There is much more, which you can read here.