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The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, April 20, 2000

Review & Outlook

Governor Cellucci's Chance

Wednesday morning, Gerald Amirault's attorneys filed a petition for executive clemency with the Governor of Massachusetts. Governor Paul Cellucci now has it in his power to put an end to the anguish and isolation visited on a single family -- not to mention the mockery of reason and justice -- that began when District Attorney Scott Harshbarger mounted a sensational case of child sex abuse against the Amirault family, owners of the Fells Acres Day School in Malden. That was 1984. Today, Scott Harshbarger is the president of Common Cause, spokesman for all the latest in progressive-liberal enlightenment, and Gerald Amirault remains in prison, where he has been for nearly 14 years, with 20 years or more left to serve.

Time arrives for a pardon

Today, too, the baseless charges of mass abuse, with their tales of robots and murdered animals and menacing clowns, stand discredited along with all their kind in similar prosecutions around the country beginning in the 1980s. The grotesque accusations that the prosecutors' determined interrogators extorted from four- and five-year-olds by wheedling, offers of rewards -- by telling children that if they had a bad secret to tell they would make their mommies and the interrogator proud and happy -- have now all been recognized for what they are by every rational authority who has looked at this case.

The fraudulence of the charges has been clear, that is, to everyone but the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, whose members -- indifferent, apparently, to the findings of no less than three superior court judges schooled in every detail of the case, and determined to uphold the wisdom of their own earlier decisions -- last August again upheld the prosecutors and restored Cheryl Amirault's conviction.

The Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly -- a publication which has never in its existence taken an editorial position on a case -- not long after noted that defendants in these abuse prosecutions all around the country have ultimately been freed, and even some of their prosecutors have acknowledged their errors. "But in Massachusetts things have been different," the Lawyers Weekly charged in an editorial unambiguously titled, "Travesty Of Justice."

"The prosecutors here," the Lawyers Weekly observed, "seem unwilling to admit that they might have sent innocent people to jail for crimes that never occurred." They noted that, whatever had happened -- this violation of rights or that -- was of no consequence to the prosecutors, who argued that the jurors believed the children and that was all that mattered.

Such defiance might perhaps be expected of these public officials, the writers declared, but it was surprising to witness the same attitude in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, a court with a reputation for protecting individual liberties.

The truth is, of course, that, in the rage of accusations and trials of alleged child molesters that swept the nation in the 1980s -- and well into the '90s -- the protection of individual liberties would count for little in many a courtroom. In time -- after the irremediable destruction of countless lives and reputations of innocent citizens -- the fever of accusations waned as rationality returned to the justice system and appeals courts began, one after another, to look into these cases.

They found bizarre charges generally brought on the basis of one accusation followed by a hundred more, once state investigators began seeking "other victims" -- and especially as word got around that insurance companies might pay plaintiffs a lot of money in compensation, as they usually did. They found convictions based on no evidence but hearsay testimony, trials that saw the suspension of the traditional rules of evidence and the rights of the accused.

To look into these cases, in short, was to see that they were a blight on the justice system. This is what appeals court justices saw everywhere, and acted accordingly. Except, of course, those on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts who voted to send Cheryl Amirault back to prison.

That's not to say the truth about this case wasn't clear to the three superior court judges who have called for the convictions to be reversed, among them Cheryl and Violet's trial judge John Paul Sullivan. Judge Robert Barton granted the women's motion for a new trial and freed them in 1995. When the SJC reinstated their convictions, Judge Isaac Borenstein granted the women a new trial -- and presided over a formal inquiry into this prosecution. Judge Borenstein found that "the Amirault family was targeted in this investigation from the outset in a climate of fear and panic.... Law enforcement officials had decided from the start that the Amiraults had committed these crimes."

The judge's report shredded any prosecution claim that the Amiraults had been justly convicted. None of his findings would influence the members of the Supreme Judicial Court, devoted -- as they explained in their decision -- to the principle of "finality."

Some months back Governor Cellucci said, while a guest on a talk show, that he felt justice had not been done in the Amirault case. He now has the chance to distinguish himself and take the step necessary to extinguish this blight on the Massachusetts justice system and grant Gerald Amirault's commutation petition. That cannot undo what was done to the Amiraults, nor wipe away the fact that such a case was brought -- or that the state's highest court upheld the principle of "finality" over the interests of justice. Governor Cellucci was right to notice. He can now set Gerald free, at long last -- as we trust he will -- and restore what is left of the Amirault family.


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