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The Wall Street Journal
Friday, May 12, 2000

A Juror Has Second Thoughts

By Dorothy Rabinowitz
A member of the Journal's editorial board

In the long years since the members of the Amirault family were convicted of atrocious sexual crimes against children at the Fells Acres Day School, the jurors have maintained their silence. That silence has now been broken by one of those who voted, in 1986, for the conviction of Gerald Amirault.

The words of that juror are to be found in his letter to Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, now considering the petition for executive clemency filed on behalf of Gerald, the Amirault still behind bars serving a 30- to 40-year sentence.

Urging Gerald's immediate release, the juror wrote, "I am convinced that Mr. Amirault was innocent." He had come to this conclusion, the letter continues, on the basis of all he had learned from his reading about the case.

"I think my jury was misled and did not hear all the evidence," the juror writes. Noting that the verdict was based on the children's testimony, he says, further, "We believed the children and did not know that their testimony was tainted." A superior court judge had reviewed the case and shown that taint, the letter continues -- a reference to Judge Isaac Borenstein's detailed inquiry and his ensuing report, which heaped scorn on arguments that the prosecutors had proceeded in the interests of justice and rightly convicted the Amiraults.

"We did not know the children were inappropriately interviewed," writes the juror -- nor did he or the rest of the jurors know how authorities and parents influenced that testimony.

"If I knew then, what I know now from reading the newspaper, I would not have convicted Mr. Amirault," he adds. The juror's letter concludes with a final plea to "release Mr. Amirault and undo a terrible wrong."

Significantly, the juror doesn't ask for Gerald's release on the grounds that it would be merciful, but rather that he was wrongly convicted. It is a plea for justice, not compassion -- an important distinction in a chronicle of state-inflicted evil whose truth has already been muddied by concessions and bargains made, we are informed, in the name of mercy.

It was such an arrangement that ensured that Gerald's sister, Cheryl -- tried in 1987 and sent off, along with their mother, Violet, to do eight to 20 years -- would not have to return to prison when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts last August reinstated her conviction. In exchange for this act of compassion, the prosecutors' office required a promise that Cheryl Amirault would pursue no further legal efforts to establish her innocence. This bargain, which secured her freedom, also ensured that her conviction would remain intact.

Legally speaking, matters had turned out differently in the case of Violet Amirault, who died with the presumption of her innocence permanently restored. Her death came in 1997, before the Supreme Judicial Court could reinstate the conviction of the once proud and successful Mrs. Amirault, whose preschool had been her life's passion and -- like numerous others in the wrong line of work in the era of hotline accusations and mass abuse trials -- the source, also, of unimaginable ruin and degradation.

A grant of executive clemency for Gerald Amirault would not of course mean legal vindication, but neither would it require any deal that would prevent him from pursuing further efforts to establish his innocence.

It was inevitable that jurors in cases like that of the Amiraults would one day discover all they never knew about the testimony and other evidence the prosecutors had presented. They had once sat listening to dramatic recitals by five- and six-year-olds, all unaware of the pressure, pleading and perseverance it had taken to produce such charges from children who had had to learn from the investigators all about the sexual attacks and tortures that had supposedly been inflicted on them by the Amiraults.

This was no ordinary resort to tainted testimony. The children's interviews were systematic, their sole objective the creation of abuse accusations. The jurors could not have known that investigators looking into the charges against the Amiraults had interested themselves exclusively in efforts to prove the family's guilt -- that the question of whether anything had in fact happened to the children was not one they were prepared to consider.

Begged for stories about bad things that had happened, the children had provided the interviewers with spectacular reports -- all the now-famous tales about invading robots, mutilated squirrels, and how Miss Violet had tied a naked boy to a tree in front of the school while all the teachers and children watched. The jurors could not have considered the point Judge Borenstein, among others, later made -- that the prosecutors never questioned the credibility of child witnesses relating these fantasies.

The juries have spoken, district attorneys defending the Amirault prosecutions regularly inform all challengers -- an argument also made by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The juror who has come forward now is, so far, a lone voice, and as such also a reminder of what might have been. Indeed, a single dissenting vote could have prevented Gerald Amirault's conviction.

The juror has since read and learned and shown himself more alive to the claims of justice than those who sit on the state's highest court. Even in the militant climate of irrationality in which the Amiraults were tried, it would have been difficult to imagine that revelations about fabricated testimony, investigators prompting children to make their accusations, and all the rest of the insults to justice represented by the Amiraults' prosecution would one day be dismissed -- by the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts -- as insufficient indicators of a miscarriage of justice.

Gov. Cellucci may have a different view.

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