Remembering Massachusetts’ Denial of Justice to the Amirault Family

Gerald Amirault, his wife, and his daughter rejoice after he is released on parole in 2004.

This article was originally published on the Scholastic Legal Blog’s website.

Today is the 36th anniversary of the start of one of the most tragic miscarriages of justice in Massachusetts’ modern history. On August 20, 1984, a nursery child told a family member that he was undressed at the Fells Acres Day Care Center. This intensified the 1980s’ day-care sex abuse hysteria and setoff a series of investigations that — through unethical interviewing and law enforcement tactics — would lead to the arrests of Violet, Cheryl, and Gerald Amirault, the owners of the small day care center.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in her book No Crueler Tyrannies, discusses the invidious treatment of Violet, Cheryl, and Gerald Amirault, who were imprisoned for over 15 years on the basis of unreliable testimony, by the Massachusetts justice system. Rabinowitz was one of the first novelists to investigate the Amirault cases in-depth and her book played a substantial role in the release of Gerald Amirault in 2004. In her investigation, she found many legal issues in the way the judges and lawyers conducted the Amirault trials — issues that violated the Amirault family’s Constitutional rights and should have warranted a new trial.

The Amirault’s pilgrimage into the abyss of the legal systems began in August 1984 when a parent of a child enrolled at the Fells Acres Day Care Center noticed that her child began exhibiting symptoms of sexual assault, symptoms to which parents across the nation had been sharply attuned a year earlier in the similar McMartin preschool sex abuse trial. After being questioned by his mother, his uncle, and a psychiatrist, the boy reluctantly confessed that Gerald Amirault had changed his clothing after he wet himself and had been taking him to a secret room to perform sexual acts (Rabinowitz 8). The police acted expediently and arrested Gerald. Later, they would also arrest Violet and Cheryl Amirault on similar charges.

During their investigation, the police employed psychiatric nurse Susan Kelley to help interview the children. Kelley subjected the preschoolers to lengthy interviews, using methods which remain questionable, to eventually obtain compliance by some children with the prosecution’s story about a predatory clown and a magic room inside of Fells Acres.

The prosecution naturally called the children that Kelley and other investigators had interviewed as witnesses for Gerald’s trial. Gerald, in large part due to his gender and sterotypes associated with child sex predators, was easily convicted and sentenced to thirty to forty years behind bars (Rabinowitz 45). Rabinowitz believes that Violet and Cheryl’s trial was much more of a circus, however. The prosecution called a postal inspector to testify about the “evils of child pornography” so that they could imply that the mother and daughter filmed child pornography, which the prosecutors were unable to corroborate with physical evidence (Rabinowitz 64). This was seen as severe foul play and the judge was accused of condoning “the admission … of highly inflammatory and prejudicial evidence” by allowing the postal inspector to testify (Rabinowitz 78). Rabinowitz further claims that the prosecution’s motive for introducing this witness was to “infer that because pornographers, having no connection with the defendants, took pictures of children, so had the Amiraults” (Rabinowitz 78). Moreover, citing the potential for repeat trauma to the young child witnesses, the judge in this case denied the Amiraults their constitutional right to face their accusers.

The Amirault women appealed their conviction to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for those reasons. In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Charles Fried, the court acknowledged that on a factual basis, the Amirault women were correct that their rights had been violated. It denied the appeal, however, due to the violations not raising “a substantial risk of miscarriage of justice” and in the interest of finality, stating, “once the process has run its course … the community’s interest in finality comes to the fore” and that “[t]he regular course of justice … must not be endless” (Commonwealth vs. Violet Amirault 637). Rabinowitz blasted the majority opinion for putting justice second and efficiency first (Rabinowitz 95). The opinion was, in fact, a shift in the Supreme Judicial Court’s view on finality. Before the opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court saw “finality … as one concern in addressing new-trial motions, but it had never before been elevated above the risk of injustice in terms of importance” (“Travesty of Justice”).

Rabinowitz is not alone in her view. Justice Francis O’Connor, who dissented from the majority’s finality decision, also disagreed with Fried’s view that the suspension of the defendants’ right to confront their accusers did not result in a miscarriage of justice. Rather, he maintained that since “this was a case in which the jury had to make a verdict on the assessment of the child witnesses’ credibility,” not allowing for “face-to-face confrontation … was surely an error of consequence.” He warned that the court’s “desire for finality should not eclipse [its] concern that … justice not miscarry” (Rabinowitz 94).

As the case aged into the start of the 21st century, O’Connor’s warnings came to bear as legal scholars and public opinion began to mount against the finality decision. One editorial blamed the prosecutors for being irresponsible with their prosecutorial powers stating that they “seem unwilling to admit any possibility that they might have sent innocent people to jail for crimes that never occurred. Yes, confrontation rights were violated. Yes, investigation tactics were unduly suggestive … But, according to prosecutors, the jurors believed the children and that’s all that matters” (Rabinowitz 171). Other critics demanded that the courts “correct … a prosecution that should never have been brought” (Rabinowitz 172).

Due to the preschoolers’ testimony, the reliability of which was tainted by the prosecution’s investigators, and the unchallenged notion that children are “invariably truthful,” the Amirault family’s life was shattered (Rabinowitz 149, 249). In 1998, Violet Amirault was issued a posthumous pardon. Gerald and Cheryl Amirault have yet to be exonerated by Massachusetts, however. Although their original beliefs were rooted in good intentions, the prosecutors were too protective of their own reputations and egos, resulting in innocent people serving time (“Travesty of Justice”). The Supreme Judicial Court, to save face, closed ranks to defend the authority of its decision making at the expense of the justice it was tasked with dispensing, overturning the decisions of several different trial judges who all concluded that the charges against the Amiraults were baseless. Massachusetts must face this miscarriage of justice eventually; they should not wait until Gerald and Cheryl Amirault die.

Works Cited

“COMMONWEALTH vs. VIOLET AMIRAULT (and Eleven Companion Cases ). COMMONWEALTH vs. GERALD AMIRAULT.” Justia Law, law.justia.com/cases/massachusetts/supreme-court/volumes/424/424mass618.html.

“Travesty of Justice.” Amiraults: Travesty of Justice, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, 13 Sept. 1999, www.cltg.org/cltg/amirault/mlwedit.htm.

Rabinowitz, Dorothy. No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times. Free Press, 2004.

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