and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
June 30, 1999


'Finality' for the Amiraults

BOSTON--On May 6, members of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard oral arguments in the Amirault case--the final process before the decision determining whether Cheryl Amirault must be returned to prison. The tortuous legal journey that had brought her here had been long, and one she now traveled alone, her mother Violet having died, in 1997, while awaiting disposition of their fate.

Cheryl and Violet Amirault were first released from prison in 1995 when a lower court judge overturned their convictions--a temporary victory, as it turned out. In 1997, the Supreme Judicial Court granted the prosecutors' appeal that they be returned to prison. Two months later, the day the women were due to be sent back, a second judge vacated their convictions and granted the motion for a new trial. Again the prosecutors appealed. The question now is whether the court will uphold the reversal or again grant the state's appeal. The justices are expected to issue their decision shortly.

The prosecutor began by arguing in a soft voice that child witnesses against the Amirault family hadn't been led into their accusations of sexual abuse--a presentation that engendered similarly gentle inquiries from most of the justices. A faint air of somnolence settled over the rear of the room, the packed spectator's section. The Amiraults and all matters concerning them were now again major news in Boston. So they had been in the 1980s when Violet Amirault, owner of the highly regarded Fells Acres Day School, her newly married daughter, Cheryl, and son, Gerald, were accused of committing the vilest of sex crimes against small children in their care. A first accusation, called in on a hotline--that Gerald had assaulted a five-year-old boy--soon led to many others against Violet and Cheryl as well. The school that the then 60-year-old Violet Amirault had run for 20 years, that was her pride, joy and exclusive interest in life, was immediately closed. Following their trial in 1987, Violet and Cheryl were sentenced to eight to 20 years in prison, eight of which they served before their sentence was reversed. Gerald, tried separately, was given 30 to 40 years. In the 1980s, as in the courtroom today, the prosecutors maintained that the prosecution of the Amirault family had been proper, and that justice had been done.

This morning would bring, it seemed, no news, nothing in the arguments, nothing particularly revealing in the comments from the bench. So it appeared, until the counsels for the Amiraults rose to present their case, at which point Justice Charles Fried assumed the role of chief interrogator. Justice Fried was the author of the 1997 decision that the Amiraults should remain in prison in the interest of "finality."

Now, a marveling Justice Fried wanted to know, why should Amirault attorney Daniel R. Williams refer to this as an extraordinary case? Cases like this came before the court regularly, the justice averred--of "parents, caretakers and boyfriends engaging in exactly the same kind of conduct that is charged here." And they came, the judge emphasized, "all the time."

In various quarters of the courtroom people stared at one another. If charges that small children had been assaulted en masse in magic-secret rooms, by an entire family of molesters headed by an elderly nursery school head who had unaccountably become, at age 62, a pedophile and child rapist--children daily terrorized, forced to watch animals mutilated, violated by attackers disguised as clowns and elephants, children who continued nevertheless going merrily off to school every day to be assaulted with sticks and knives which magically left no mark, and photographed by clowns with big cameras--if cases like this were presented to the court all the time, as Justice Fried now claimed, it was certainly news.

When Amirault attorney James Sultan pointed out in the course of the questioning that, contrary to the prosecutors' claims, no child and no parent had any complaint about Fells Acres till the investigators moved in--only then did parents begin finding symptoms of abuse--Justice Fried responded, "So now, it's the parents whose testimony is tainted." There was more of the same as the justice went on to declare, in heavily disbelieving tones, that the attorney was now saying that the parents were also victims of suggestibility.

They were familiar, these tones, with their clear implication that anyone who could raise doubts about the word of parents in these cases had committed a gross violation against decency. They were familiar because they were the tones of the prosecutors, not only in the Amirault case but all others like it--and all depended heavily on the testimony of parents. All the defense attorneys could expect to hear this tone. Particularly any attorney who pointed out that the many extreme symptoms so many parents began remembering had never worried them before the investigators came to town, or even moved them to bring their child to a doctor. The juries, too, would get the same message--that to doubt the parents was to add to the suffering of the abused. For in these cases, it was understood, the parents were to be treated not simply as witnesses but as co-victims.

And so many of them had come to look upon themselves, as they revealed when they showed up occasionally in some television interview, their voices altered, dressed in wigs and disguises, to speak of the suffering they had endured, the suffering their children would endure, if the molesters were to be released. Many of them had had in the course of their suffering also collected large amounts of settlement money from the various schools' insurance companies. The parent of one of the child witnesses against the Amiraults put a lien on Violet's property just one month after the first accusation--just the beginning of the money claims. By the time it was over the insurers had given the plaintiffs settlements totaling more than $20 million.

The mother of child M, the first to accuse Gerald, had given an account that was a maze of conflicting stories impossible to follow but one thing is clear enough. Preoccupied by the danger of child abuse--a subject much in the air--she had repeatedly pressed her son to talk about molestation months before making her charge. She told the child, moreover, that his Uncle Walter had been fondled when he was a boy. The reasons she offered for her suspicions of abuse were varied--among them, she said, the fact that the boy didn't bring drawings home from Fells Acres as he had at his former nursery school. It was clear, too, that her son frequently wet his clothing and had done so while at Fells Acres, so that Gerald had to change the boy's pants. Pressed to talk about abuse the boy would say later that Gerald had pulled his pants down.

The boy had recently endured highly disturbing experiences--violent strife between his parents, his father's departure from home, his mother's psychiatric hospitalization, the loss of a beloved puppy the parents decided to leave behind when they moved, the move itself, a new nursery school. Still the mother decided that her son's bedwetting and other behavioral changes could only be the result of sexual abuse at Fells Acres.

Before and during the trial she altered her account of events several times, while her brother, Uncle Walter, remembered only a day before he was to testify that his nephew had also told him Gerald had committed oral sodomy on him--a charge the uncle had not thought to raise for nearly two years. The mother--bearing in mind, perhaps, that a person himself formerly abused might not be considered the most objective witness--now remembered that it was not her brother Walter who had been molested, but a different brother. Now deceased.

Justice Fried's comments touched, however unwittingly, on a signature aspect of all cases like this--the role of the parents. The answer to the mock question--whether the attorney could possibly be saying the parents too were led--was that of course they were, and that no aspect of these trials was more obvious, or more important to the prosecutors' success. Many parents rejected the opportunity to join these cases--but those that did sign up became true believers, agents of the prosecutors deeply invested in the state's case. They rehearsed their children, interrogated them at home and often enough endorsed even those charges prosecutors hastily discarded.

In the Wee Care case of New Jersey, one mother, a school board member, told the grand jury of her four-and-a-half year old son's charges that teacher Kelly Michaels had stuck a pencil and spoon in his ear, that the aide had given him a truth drink and that the teacher had threatened to cut the children into little pieces. And did she think her son might be fantasizing, the mother was asked. "No," she explained, he was "merely recounting what had happened during the day."

Justice Fried had also raised another issue, however inadvertently, that was the signal feature of these prosecutions--the extraordinary character of the accusations. It was of course not true that child sex abuse charges like those directed at the Amiraults came before the court all the time. The fantastic prosecutions of innocent citizens in the McMartin case, the Kelly Michaels case, and the like begun in the early 1980s had, like that of the Amiraults, spawned the most phenomenal accusations of abuse--phenomenal and also almost exactly the same everywhere these trials were held. Citizens of Boston stunned to read in the newspapers about animals tortured and secret rooms at the Amiraults' school could not have known in just how many parts of the country, prosecutors' investigators had been able to uncover these same crimes, virtually identical in all their colorful detail.

In the brutalities of actual child abuse courts see every day, there are no clowns, no elephants, no butchered bluebirds or magic rooms. The charges are plain, stark, violation without frills. Here children don't talk about being molested in hot air balloons, as in the McMartin case, or visits from robots, as in Amirault. Nor are they given to stories about magic potions, about being forced to drink urine or eat excrement--details that emerged again and again in cases from New Jersey to California. And not surprisingly, since so many interrogators questioning children worked from the same list of alleged abuse symptoms, the same menu of pedophilic preferences.

Child B, who testified against Cheryl and Violet and Gerald Amirault, testified at trial about the teachers who tied him up naked to a tree outside the school and the killing of animals. Something bad happened to a dog's leg.

Q) "What happened to his leg?"

A) "Vi and Cheryl took it off."

Q) "How did they take his leg off?"

A) "With a knife."

The child also testified about robots. And what did the robot look like, he was asked?

"An ordinary robot," came the answer.

Few people by now will be surprised by any of this, so much has everyone now learned about the way the child witnesses in these cases were used. The justices too now know, in the fullest detail, how the Amiraults came to be accused, and none will be able to deny it. This much at least Judge Isaac Borenstein, the second to overturn Violet's and Cheryl's convictions, ensured when he issued his scathing set of findings last June, in which he charged that "The Amirault family was targeted in a climate of fear and panic," that law enforcement authorities and investigators had shown no interest in determining whether anything had actually happened to the children and that investigators "used every trick in the book" to get the children to say what they wanted them to say.

Nevertheless, Gerald Amirault is still in prison, where he has been now for 13 years. It remains a fact, too, that all the headline-making cases of this kind around the country--the making of so many prosecutors' careers--have by now been overturned, discredited as travesties. Everywhere but in Massachusetts. History will render its own judgment if Justice Fried and colleagues decide that in Massachusetts alone, so obvious a travesty should be allowed to stand, in the name of finality.

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