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The Wall Street Journal
Monday, July 9, 2001

Gerald Amirault has reason to celebrate

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

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 conviction.

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.

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