At 10 o'clock this morning, Gerald Amirault will walk out of his Massachusetts jail, a free man.
It is a joyous day for this prisoner, behind bars for 18 years after his 1986 conviction on charges of child sex abuse based on fantastical testimony dragged from pre-schoolers. Gerald's mother Violet and his sister Cheryl served eight years before their convictions were overturned in 1995.
It is also a happy day for The Wall Street Journal. Readers of this page will be familiar with Dorothy Rabinowitz's accounts of judicial abuse of the Amirault family and others falsely convicted of child sex abuse during a wave of irrational cases that swept the courts in the 1980s.
Our system isn't always immune to destructive pressures, and the day-care child-abuse prosecutions of the 1980s were one such instance. Mr. Amirault's prosecution was driven by the passions of the times--in this case, the belief that child predators lurked everywhere and that the child "victims" must be believed at all costs.
Along the way, the law was stood on its head. The rules of evidence were changed to accommodate the prosecution; the burden of proof was put on the accused. Four- and five-year-olds were coached to say what adults wanted to hear. All this was done in the name of virtue, with the result being the kind of catastrophic miscarriage of justice we saw in Mr. Amirault's case. There never was any truth to the charges brought against him. Nor was there anything that would, in saner times, have passed for evidence in an American courtroom.
Pulitzer prize winner Dorothy Rabinowitz's gave an interview for her book "No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times" where she discusses the Amirault family.
One of the reasons behind the district attorney's decision last week not to oppose Mr. Amirault's release on parole was that in order to have him classified as a "sexually dangerous person" there would have had to be a virtual re-trial of the entire Amirault case. The DA had to have been deterred by the prospect of parading into a courtroom with the incredible fantasies extracted from Mr. Amirault's alleged victims--about secret rooms, magic drinks, animal butchery, assaults by a bad clown. Then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger had offered them as "proof" of the Amiraults' guilt.
It is worth remembering, especially today, some of the players in this remarkable saga. They include the independent-minded lower court Judges Robert Barton and Isaac Borenstein, who waged their own small war against these cases and ordered new trials for the Amirault women. They also include the Amiraults' attorney, James Sultan, who like the judges was convinced of the Amiraults' innocence.
On the other hand, there were the prosecutors, determined to hold on to their convictions even as those lost all credibility. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the prosecutors despite voluminous evidence that the Amiraults had been convicted on the basis of bogus testimony.
Who can forget the opinion written by Associate Justice Charles Fried reinstating the convictions of Violet and Cheryl? Yes, Justice Fried allowed, the children had been subjected to leading questions and, yes, there had been an atmosphere of hysteria that had affected the investigations. And yes, certain of the defendants' constitutional rights had been violated. Even so, none of this served to "waken doubts" and was not a reason to "reopen what society has a right to consider closed."
Politicians also share in the blame, especially former Governor Jane Swift. In the midst of a political race, her poll numbers sinking, she overruled the Board of Pardons, which had issued a unanimous ruling in 2001 calling for commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence. Her act condemned Mr. Amirault to three more years in jail.
These memories of Gerald's --and all the Amirault family-- long and bitter struggle can't cloud the joy of a day that sees him returned to his family. Whatever may lie ahead, it is, for the moment, enough.
On the morning of April 30, the day Gerald Amirault was released from Bay State Correctional Facility after 18 years of imprisonment on charges that he had sexually assaulted and tortured children, Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley gave press interviews announcing that the most important thing to keep in mind about this case was that it had been valid, the convictions just; and that the children had told the truth. Some days earlier, the district attorney had also made known her decision not to file a petition seeking to keep Gerald Amirault imprisoned on the grounds that he was a sexually dangerous person. She had come to this decision, she explained, because she had insufficient evidence of such a charge.
Many a student of the Amirault case must have been awed by the magnitude of that understatement. Even if Ms. Coakley had been inclined--as she clearly was not--to try to have Gerald Amirault classified as a sexually dangerous person, she would have had to mount a rerun of the entire investigation and trials of the Amirault family, before a jury. The prospect of entering a Massachusetts courtroom today, with the testimony about magic rooms, bad clowns, animal butchery and the rest, that the original prosecutor, then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger, offered as evidence against Gerald and his sister and mother in the 1980s, must have been blood-chilling. All things considered, it wasn't surprising that Ms. Coakley should have decided it would be best to tie things up with the standard professions of faith--one last claim that the children had not lied, one final assertion that the Amiraults had been justly convicted--and let it all go.
Gerald Amirault's 18-year imprisonment ended early on a sun-filled day. Under press helicopters hovering in the bluest of skies, dozens of family members, and his attorney, traveled in packed cars to claim him. Troopers managed to hold the mass of reporters and camera crews well away from the prison grounds, as his wife, Patricia Amirault, and the three now-adult Amirault children, assorted in-laws and others made their unsteady way across the grounds toward the building where the prisoner would be delivered for release. Nothing in the long years they had spent waiting for this moment had prepared them for it--for this march under the bright sun, the pressure of their unshed tears--as they struggled to move quietly, straight ahead.
Outside the building, a pleasant officer quickly informed them, with evident regret, that regulations forbade their entry. They would have to wait outside. Almost as quickly, something changed and they were all ushered into the building. The rule had been waived. Inside the small room, a tanned and joyful Gerald came bounding out to meet his sobbing family and friends.
The night before, members of the prison staff had come down to say goodbye and shake his hand. Inside the prison system, as outside, were people who had long grasped that in the Fells Acres Day care case of the '80s, three innocent Americans had been convicted on trumped-up charges reflective of a hysterical time. School principal Violet Amirault had been hounded virtually to her death, by then-District Attorney Tom Reilly, (Mr. Harshbarger's successor), who was determined that she and her daughter Cheryl be returned to prison after lower-court judges had ordered new trials and reversed their convictions. Everyone following the case had by now grasped that the Commonwealth prosecutors would spare no effort to keep Gerald in prison, and that in their unyielding struggle to preserve their convictions in the Fells Acres case, the prosecutors could count on the faithful support of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
In the early afternoon of Gerald's release day, a noisy assemblage of family and friends packed the large room of a Boston restaurant--a celebration that brought together many of those who had remained at the Amiraults' side: relatives, neighbors and others who had offered their friendship, and who had, over the years, lived through every turn of the case, every dashed hope and denied appeal, along with the family.
The day had begun early for the Amiraults, particularly Patricia, who found one of her neighbors at the door at 5 in the morning--a well-wisher anxious to begin the festivities. In one car headed back to Boston from the prison that morning, Gerald's brother-in-law Al, a trucker, took incessant cell phone calls of congratulation from his fellow drivers. At Cheryl's office the afternoon before, her colleagues had thrown a small celebration with champagne.
Among the restaurant celebrants was Patricia's father, Phil McGonagle, a man who had prayed, after the trial and conviction back in the '80s, that he be allowed to live long enough to see his son-in-law freed. At his side sat his wife, Mary McGonagle, who had made it her business to wait for a phone call from the prison every night in all the years of Gerald's imprisonment. After he had finished talking to his wife and children, she was the one Gerald called. Such conversations could not have been easy--what had she found to talk about, all those nights? Every little thing, she said, as though describing a routine service everyone might have been expected to perform. The conversations lifted his spirit, that she could see. During the day she would often prepare for them by watching hockey or basketball or other games--none of this normally of any interest to her--in order to give him tidbits of sports news.
Scattered around the restaurant tables as well sat Gerald's numerous nieces and nephews. Young adults now, they had as children been familiar faces at every courtroom proceeding involving the Amiraults.
They had grown up with the tragedy of Violet, Gerald and Cheryl. All have been a part of the intransigently hopeful band of relatives who sat through all the hearings and waited for the outcome of appeals to the state's highest court--invariably denied. The most notorious of the denials had been authored by Associate Justice Charles Fried--a decision that held that the court should not reopen a case "society has the right to consider closed." The justice allowed, remarkably enough, that hysteria had indeed affected the child-abuse investigations in the Fells Acres case; that children fed leading questions made charges that might otherwise never have occurred to them; that, indeed, the defendants had been denied a basic constitutional right. But none of this was enough, Justice Fried argued, to "waken doubts" about whether justice had been done.
However often defeated, the Amirault family and their supporters could always manage to find a ray of hope, thin though it might be. Some had actually found cause for cheer, however brief, when they learned that Harvard's Margaret Marshall, reputed to be a strong advocate for social justice, would be joining the Supreme Judicial Court. Justice Marshall in short order proved herself a reliable supporter of the majority that upheld the Amiraults' prosecutors, as one of the justices who signed onto Justice Fried's decision extolling the value of "finality." There had been but one dissenter--Justice Francis P. O'Connor--who pointed out that the desire for finality "should not eclipse our concern that in our courts justice not miscarry." The court's regular denials of the Amiraults' appeals moved the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly to an unprecedented editorial pointing out that the Supreme Judicial Court seemed determined to defend the prosecutors and keep the defendants behind bars.
From time to time, the inveterate optimists in the Amiraults' circle found cause for hope in state leaders. Republican Paul Cellucci, who defeated the Democratic candidate and Amirault prosecutor, Scott Harshbarger, in 2000, had indicated in public his belief that justice had not been done in the Amirault case. Unfortunately, Mr. Cellucci--whose Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously called for commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence--moved on to a post in the new Bush administration. That left in charge his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, who overruled the Board of Pardons decision in the hope that she might scrape up enough votes as a crusader against child sex abuse to salvage her hopeless run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Even now, the door seemingly closed to Gerald's freedom for no one knew how many years more, his supporters found cause to hope that the new Republican governor, Mitt Romney, might take up what Gov. Cellucci had begun, and look at the case. A wholly unfounded hope as it turned out: Gov. Romney's office proved more studiously indifferent to all queries related to the case than any previous governor.
All this seems a long way off now to Gerald, still accustoming himself to cell phones and shopping in malls. Wherever he goes, he finds a warm welcome. Everyone is more than kind, including the local police chief, who sent a letter to Mrs. Amirault explaining that he had had nothing to do with the original case--and that he hoped she knew that if she saw a police car near the house it was intended as support for the family.
On the street, strangers flock around Gerald, well-wishers want to shake his hand. He had had no doubts that life would be good, that he would relish every minute of his homecoming, but there is no mistaking a faint note of wonder in his tone, a month after his release, at the depth of his happiness. He is looking around for a job, and in the meantime busying himself fixing things around the house that fell into disrepair while he was gone--one of the things he dreamed of doing while in prison.
On the first of May, the day after Violet's son Gerald was released from prison, I received this e-mail from his sister Cheryl.
"Barbara", it said, "today we went to my mother's grave and we actually enjoyed the visit. Decorated the stone together, with beautiful flowers and butterflies. Patti and the kids came and we really were happy knowing that my mother would be, too!"
That same day a volunteer advocate for the unjustly imprisoned, Bob Chapelle, wrote to tell those on his "friends of justice" list that he was about to leave on his annual Mother's Day visit to Minnesota.
"I think I owe my concern about justice to my mother, who will be 84 in September." he wrote. "She taught me early in life that there is such a thing as a moral obligation and that one must fight for what is right ... even if the odds are against you. Mom is keenly interested in my work for justice and always wants updates when I go to see her. I so seldom have good news to give ...."
The day before, Bob and his partner, Jim, had been in the crowd of well-wishers who gathered at Maggiano's restaurant in Boston to greet Gerry after his release. My partner, Chip Ford, and I were there, along with our co-worker, Chip Faulkner, who had drawn us both into the Amirault case after reading columns in the Wall Street Journal. Their author, Dorothy Rabinowitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the day-care hysteria that swept the country in the 1980s, was at the party, too, as was Gerry's never-give-up lawyer, Jamie Sultan.
Gerry and Patti's son, in his military school uniform, was greeting people at the door. Their two daughters were bouncing joyfully around the room from table to table, as were Patti's always-supportive parents. Someone had brought a tape of Barry Manilow's "Welcome Home," and there were few dry eyes watching Gerry and Patti dance to it.
There was more Italian food than any crowd could eat - paid for by another supporter of the Amiraults, and champagne for a toast.
"To freedom" we all cried, because we could not say "to justice."
There is no justice for Gerry, for Cheryl, or for Violet, who were simple day-care providers when the nation went temporarily mad, and whose prosecutors in this state still will not admit to having made a terrible mistake. Nothing can make up for false imprisonment, for the premature death of Violet from a stress-related cancer or, as Gerry says, "from a broken heart."
Nothing can give Gerry back the 18 years he spent behind bars.
People who had never met him had a chance to see him, with Patti, on New England Cable News' "Newsnight" last Monday night. He told about his years in protective custody, and then his transfer to the BayState Correctional Institution.
"The last five years were great," he said, noting that in the open population he could participate in sports, take college classes, and picnic with his family outdoors.
What kind of person can refer to his last five years in prison as "great"? Only one of those rare human beings, of whom Rudyard Kipling wrote: "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them 'Hold on!...'"
This time of year, Kipling's words often appear on graduation cards. Gerry just got his bachelor's degree with second highest honors from Boston University. His sister Cheryl has a job she loves.
They have both "filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run."
Which is not to say that anyone is forgiving the wrong that has been done. At his post-release press conference, and again on NECN Monday night, Gerry managed to be angry without sounding bitter.
"I'm going to move on with my life, enjoying my family... I'm not going to let my pursuit of this case get in the way of that. But we're going to do whatever we can to prove my innocence and clear my family's name," he said.
His wife and children agree with this goal. Their elder daughter, who is planning a career in special education, might someday write a book to help children deal with events like those she and her siblings survived.
Ironically, Gerry's final liberal arts class at BU had a chapter called "Moral Panics," which addressed his Fells Acres case and similar day-care hysterias in California and elsewhere. He passed the course. In fact, he and his family passed his entire ordeal with honors.
Those of us who supported them are proud to have been even a small part of something bigger than ourselves.
My mother, like Bob's, had a strong sense of justice, and always asked about the Amiraults. This Mother's Day I'll think of her, and Violet, too.