and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
October 31, 2000

A Hearing in Boston
By Dorothy Rabinowitz

On Sept. 20, police guards escorted Gerald Amirault to a small Boston hearing room soon to be crowded with relatives, friends and other interested parties.

Here, the last imprisoned member of the Amirault family would meet with the governor's board that recommends approval or denial of commutation appeals. He was permitted a suit and tie for this occasion, and an occasion it was, there could be no doubt. Few prisoners seeking commutation are granted a hearing before the board, as Gerald Amirault and his attorneys knew. They knew, also, how few such appeals are granted.

Among the others here today were Gerald Amirault's wife, children and extended family, a quiet crowd with an air of slightly exhausted anticipation. They had attended many hearings, awaited many decisions, always wary of hope, and invariably, uncontrollably, hopeful nonetheless.

Near them, just across a narrow aisle, another silent contingent of spectators sat. These were the parents and other relatives of the children who testified at the mid-1980s trials of Violet Amirault, the owner of the Fells Acres Day School in Malden, Mass., her adult daughter Cheryl, and son Gerald.

Famous throughout the state and well beyond, the charges against the Amiraults involved atrocious sexual crimes, notably identical to those of most of the other renowned prosecutions of child care workers mounted during this period. The 60-year-old Mrs. Amirault was accused of raping a child with a magic wand, of assaulting another sexually with a large butcher knife, Gerald of abusing children in a magic room while dressed as a clown, and Cheryl of similar unspeakable violations.

Children said that the Amiraults had slaughtered bluebirds, that Cheryl Amirault herself had cut the leg off a squirrel and killed a dog, to name just a few of the charges soberly recorded by the abuse investigators. All across the nation where these trials were held, the clowns and magic rooms and mutilated animals had made their appearance in testimony presented by prosecutors. After two sensational trials based on the testimony from the four- and five-year-old child witnesses, Gerald was sentenced to 30-40 years, and Violet and Cheryl to 8-20 years.

One of those witnesses for the prosecution today sat amid the knot of Fells Acres parents. In her early 20s now, the former nursery school pupil had come, like the parents, to argue against commutation of Gerald's sentence.

First, however, would come certain procedural matters, instructions, introductions, ground rules, and a roster of other speakers, beginning with Gerald -- Gerald who had only to begin speaking to undo every shred of the calm formality with which these proceedings had begun. A palpable tide of emotion flooded the room as he addressed a board composed of three former prosecutors, a former state trooper, a former probation officer and a victim's representative.

He had been in prison more than 14 years, most of them in segregation units; he had tried, all that time, to figure out how this misery had come to him and his family and he had failed, Gerald told the Board of Pardons. He had no answers. He was not an expert. He asked now, he said, only for an end to the nightmare in which he and his family had lived for so many years. He asked also that the Board not hold it against him that he refused to confess that he was guilty, now as always, and that he would continue to do so. "I am absolutely innocent of all these charges."

Under exhaustive questioning by a Board member, he readily conceded that he had entered no prison program for the rehabilitation of sex offenders all the years of his imprisonment. He was not a sex offender, Mr. Amirault carefully explained, by way of response.

The subject was thorny, given the prevailing view in the corrections system that convicted offenders must accept guilt to be considered rehabilitated. Like his mother Violet (now deceased) and his sister, Gerald had continued to assert his innocence from the first accusations, made in 1984, on through all the years of their incarceration. What their refusal to confess guilt cost Violet and Cheryl was abundantly clear in the reports rejecting their parole applications.

"Parole denied. Vigorously denies the offenses," noted the 1992 decision on Violet. The report concluded that the 66-year-old Mrs. Amirault therefore remained, "a risk to the community if released." On Cheryl's parole applications, it was noted that she had committed "heinous crimes for which she takes no responsibility."

Also on the list of those addressing the Board this day were Gerald Amirault's wife, his teenage son, and his two conspicuously handsome daughters -- one a college senior of 21, the other 20 and in her junior year. Their voices breaking, each described the father they had known as children and knew now, the father shut away but at the center of their lives nonetheless. The agony of all the years had pressed itself into these voices raw with longing and grief. In the small hearing room, people fought tears, or stared straight ahead with a trapped look. At the rear of the room, the same briskly professional security officer who had searched everyone sat and wept.

Mr. Amirault's attorney, James L. Sultan, affirmed in his own statement that this hearing concerned only the question of commutation, and of disparate punishment for the same crimes. That disparity was obvious enough in Gerald's sentence as compared to the one given the women. Now, the attorney pointed out, the Board could see evidence of a still more glaring inequity. Last October, when her court appeal had been rejected and Cheryl faced return to prison -- amid widespread publicity -- the District Attorney agreed to revise and revoke her sentence to time served. Yet today, the DA adamantly opposed any such relief for Gerald. That was the issue, Mr.Sultan averred; he understood that it was not the business of the Board to address questions of guilt or innocence, or the merits of the prosecution.

Everyone understood. And still there was no way to ignore the elephant in the living room -- that huge body of opinion, legal and other, which now saw the case against the Amiraults as a sham built on accusations coaxed from children drilled in stories about a bad clown and a magic room. Three lower court judges who had looked at this prosecution were of the same emphatic opinion, and had made no secret of the fact.

In the end, it was the representative from the DA's office who would bring the elephant trundling in, however inadvertently, and remind everyone of all that had made this case notorious. Notwithstanding the stricture against arguments about guilt or innocence -- which the Board is not supposed to consider -- Lynn Rooney, the Asst. District Attorney, began an impassioned address on the case and Gerald's crimes, as well as on the testimony of the children, which she now recited in some detail.

Here again was the magic room in which Gerald attacked the small victims while disguised as a clown; the story about Violet Amirault terrorizing children with threats that they would never see their parents again if they told; another darkly meandering one about Violet selecting certain children to be left behind while others went on field trips, and how she had taken children from one classroom and put them in another. The families had suffered greatly, the children were prone to obsessive compulsive disorders, the Asst. DA argued, and they needed closure. Above all, Gerald Amirault had not even confessed to the crimes that had ravaged their lives. If there were some acknowledgment that he committed the crimes, the Asst. DA maintained, "the parents could begin to process this event."

Board member John Kivlan brought Asst. DA Rooney back to the issue at hand -- the question of the different treatment for the same crimes. Had the DA not agreed, last October, to revise and revoke Cheryl's sentence? And if that was the case, why should Gerald not be treated the same, the questioner wanted to know.

Gerald had been the ringleader in the crimes, the Asst. DA responded. The number of Gerald's crimes was greater. He would pose a danger if freed, whereas Cheryl had proven her reliability, since being freed, by committing no new offenses.

Mr. Kivlan pointed out that Gerald had also proven himself when he stayed free on bail without incident, in the two years he spent awaiting trial. And weren't the crimes charged to Violet and Cheryl the same as those Gerald was accused of committing? Mr. Kivlan, a former prosecutor, pressed relentlessly for answers. If it had been right to make the agreement freeing Cheryl so that the families could have some sense of closure, as the Asst. DA argued now, why wouldn't they be interested in closure in Gerald's case?

To all this, Ms. Rooney responded with further details of the suffering Gerald had inflicted, of the needs of the families and the children. This emphasis may have moved Board member and former prosecutor Maureen Walsh to ask gently whether -- in addition to the families' needs -- society's concern for justice might also be important.

The Asst. DA did not have an easy time, all told. None of the prosecutors who had tried and convicted the Amiraults was present today, nor anyone else from the current DA's office -- absences that said a good deal about the attractions of being identified with this case.

The argument that Gerald was the ringleader who had committed the most terrible offenses was nowhere borne out in the records. These, filed by the then DA Scott Harshbarger, who brought the case, described the crimes alleged against Violet and Cheryl and Gerald in identical language, and emphasized that there were no mitigating circumstances to explain the acts of these perpetrators.

Finally, the Fells Acres parents came before the Board to attest to the anguish they had endured as a result of the crimes. As ever, they asked that the press not reveal their identities. The parents all declared that they lived with the results of the Amiraults' crimes every day, and that nothing could atone for these crimes. One told the Board, with passion, that in her view Gerald never should be free, that a life sentence would have been appropriate. No therapy would ever be enough, another said, to undo the effects of the Amirault's crimes. Clearly for them, Gerald Amirault's lengthy sentence was the confirmation of their case -- the proof of the charges and the confirmation of their suffering.

Finally, the former Fells Acres pupil came forward, flanked by her parents. A massively overweight woman, she described, tearfully, the problems afflicting her as a result of her victimization -- which included, she said, her weight problem. Unable to control her trembling, she asked, fervently, that Gerald's commutation petition be rejected.

There could be no doubting the parents' conviction that their children had been violated and tortured in a magic room, terrorized by their teachers. Nor could there be doubt of the former child witness's certainty that she had endured unspeakable horrors at her preschool, and been sexually assaulted -- a belief now the defining fact of her life and identity. The grievous results of prosecutions like the one that swept the Amiraults off to their ruin came in many forms.

When the proceedings were over, the Amirault family filed out, spent, to await the decision that represented the last real hope for Gerald's freedom. To be sure, there isn't much in the statistics to encourage hope. Between 1988 and 1997, there were 270 petitions for commutation, of which just seven were granted. The recommendation of the Board of Pardons is expected within the next several weeks.

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