The Massachusetts Governor's Advisory Board called Friday
for the commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence. It was a 5-0 ruling with one abstention. Having listed the
matters dictating their decision, which came down to "fundamental fairness"
-- among them the severity of the sentence meted out to Gerald as compared with those given his
co-defendants, Violet and Cheryl Amirault, charged with identical crimes -- the majority
of the board felt compelled to say more. What they said and their insistence on saying it
spoke volumes about the credibility that now attaches to the mid-1980s charges that
prosecutors brought against the Amirault family, once prosperous owners of
the Fells Acres Day School.
What the majority had to say concerned the justice of those
convictions, the issue of guilt or innocence -- matters board members were forbidden to take into account in their
deliberations. And they had complied with those guidelines, they noted.
"It must be acknowledged however," their opinion continued,
"that it is clearly a matter of public knowledge that, at the minimum, real and substantial doubt exists concerning
petitioner's conviction." It went on to cite the District Attorney Office's own
acknowledgment of the flawed interviewing of children, and the lack of physical evidence.
The opinion referred to "extraordinary, if not bizarre allegations" and the
fact that convictions in similar cases around the nation had been discredited. It cited also the letter
recently written by a juror in Gerald's trial expressing doubt and regret over the
It is worth noting that the remarkable decision recommending
commutation of Gerald's sentence comes from one of the nation's toughest parole boards. Indeed, it is likely the
toughest one in the country in the view of Robert A. Barton, the longtime
Boston trial judge known as "Black Bart" for the fearsomely long sentences he meted out to the
deserving guilty. No slouch in the toughness department himself, ex-marine Barton -- who
overturned Violet and Cheryl Amirault's convictions in 1995 - notes, for example, the
near impossibility of getting this board to approve a parole request on first application.
Not surprisingly, the board's ruling for Gerald has
generated protests from prosecutors and impassioned vows to keep opposing his release. They had not counted on the Fells
Acres case coming undone; the 1980s convictions had seemed safely packed away along
with the imprisoned Amiraults. Then came the '90s and revelations about the nature of
such prosecutions, like the one then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger brought against
the Amiraults on the basis of a single accusation, soon to multiply to dozens.
Convictions in similarly preposterous cases were overturned
around the country, as the alleged evidence on which these cases were built became known to a large public. That
public, for example, now knows something about the way interrogators in
these headline-making cases bamboozled four- and five-year-olds into making false
accusations. And the public learned something, too, about the destroyed lives of innocent
citizens consigned to a nightmare world of trials and prison.
Through it all, prosecutors continued to assert the truth of
the charges, though no less than three trial judges who had reason to know the cases well virtually declared the Amirault
prosecutions a farce. Two of those lower court judges overturned Violet's and Cheryl's
convictions and would doubtless have done the same if Gerald had come before them.
These facts notwithstanding, the prosecutors argued with never-diminishing fervor that
they had convicted a family of predators and torturers, citing as their evidence the most
fantastic testimony from children, who had of course been pressed relentlessly by the state
to confide the bad things that had happened at the Fells Acres Day School.
Through it all, it was clear too that whatever might happen
as regards the Amirault women, the prosecutors would do all within their power to keep Gerald Amirault -- a
male and the prime symbol of their case -- in prison, where he has been now
for 15 years. Gov. Jane Swift, who now receives the board's recommendations, will no doubt be
hearing from the prosecutors and from outraged parents arguing that their children (now
adults) would again be terrorized if Mr. Amirault were freed.
Wait though he must for Gov. Swift to move, Gerald Amirault
has reason to feel grateful. With the board's unanimous decision, he vaulted the toughest obstacle to freedom. He is
accustomed to waiting, as are all the Amiraults.
Long after this case is over and the last Amirault has left
prison, it will be worth remembering the aspects of character that made it possible for them to endure. Among
them we can count their courage to refuse false confessions that might have
helped win their freedom. This was clear even at the commutation hearing in September.
A member of the commutation board was concerned to know why
Gerald had not sought sex offender treatment while in prison. The petitioner politely but resolutely replied that he
was not a sex offender and would therefore enter no such program. A risky answer, but
one evidently that did him no harm. Along with everything else in this case, Gerald
Amirault's final declaration may well have commended itself to those board
members who recognize a corrupt prosecution when they see one, and perhaps, innocence when it is
standing before them.