The Wall Street Journal
Friday, April 30, 2004
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
Gerald Amirault's Freedom
At 10 o'clock this morning, Gerald Amirault will walk out of his Massachusetts jail, a free man.
It is a joyous day for this prisoner, behind bars for 18 years after his 1986 conviction on charges of child sex abuse based on fantastical testimony dragged from pre-schoolers. Gerald's mother Violet and his sister Cheryl served eight years before their convictions were overturned in 1995.
It is also a happy day for this newspaper. Readers of this page will be familiar with Dorothy Rabinowitz's accounts of judicial abuse of the Amirault family and others falsely convicted of child sex abuse during a wave of irrational cases that swept the courts in the 1980s.
Our system isn't always immune to destructive pressures, and the child-abuse prosecutions of the 1980s were one such instance. Mr. Amirault's prosecution was driven by the passions of the times -- in this case, the belief that child predators lurked everywhere and that the child "victims" must be believed at all costs.
Along the way, the law was stood on its head. The rules of evidence were changed to accommodate
the prosecution; the burden of proof was put on the accused. Four- and five-year-olds were coached to say what adults wanted to hear. All this was done in the name of virtue,
with the result being the kind of catastrophic miscarriage of justice we saw in Mr. Amirault's case. There never was any truth to the charges brought against him. Nor was there
anything that would, in saner times, have passed for evidence in an American courtroom.
One of the reasons behind the district attorney's decision last week not to oppose Mr. Amirault's release on parole was that in order to have him classified as a "sexually dangerous person" there would have had to be a virtual re-trial of the entire Amirault case. The DA had to have been deterred by the prospect of parading into a courtroom with the incredible fantasies extracted from Mr. Amirault's alleged victims -- about secret rooms, magic drinks, animal butchery, assaults by a bad clown. Then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger had offered them as "proof" of the Amiraults' guilt.
It is worth remembering, especially today, some of the players in this remarkable saga. They include the independent-minded lower court Judges Robert Barton and Isaac Borenstein, who waged their own small war against these cases and ordered new trials for the Amirault women. They also include the Amiraults' attorney, James Sultan, who like the judges was convinced of the Amiraults' innocence.
On the other hand, there were the prosecutors, determined to hold on to their convictions even as those lost all credibility. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the prosecutors despite voluminous evidence that the Amiraults had been convicted on the basis of bogus testimony.
Who can forget the opinion written by Associate Justice Charles Fried reinstating the convictions of Violet and Cheryl? Yes, Justice Fried allowed, the children had been subjected to leading questions and, yes, there had been an atmosphere of hysteria that had affected the investigations. And yes, certain of the defendants' constitutional rights had been violated. Even so, none of this served to "waken doubts" and was not a reason to "reopen what society has a right to consider closed."
Politicians also share in the blame, especially former Governor Jane Swift. In the midst of a political race, her poll numbers sinking, she overruled the Board of Pardons, which had issued a unanimous ruling in 2001 calling for commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence. Her act condemned Mr. Amirault to three more years in jail.
These memories of Gerald's -- and all the Amiraults' -- long and bitter struggle can't cloud the joy of a day that sees him returned to his family. Whatever may lie ahead, it is, for the moment, enough.
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