On 18 August, 1999 -- a day that will live in infamy, along with the days when Sacco, Vanzetti, and the victims of the Salem Witch Trials were executed -- the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled Judge Borenstein's rational and humane ruling for a new trial. The gloating of the zealots who perpetrated this injustice sickened the heart. Former Middlesex prosecutor Wendy Murphy told The Boston Herald, "Stick a fork in them. They're done." The Boston Globe praised the decision in an editorial. (The Globe rejected this moderate response from Professor Bernard Rosenthal.) Cheryl's lawyers considered asking Governor Cellucci for a pardon or seeking relief in federal court. The members of the Supreme Judicial Court hope that those of us who care about justice will give up and quietly go away. But they are wrong. We will never give up this fight.
The Final Resolution of Cheryl's Case
DA Coakley, of course, insisted that this was all to protect the "victims." The prosecutors and their allies have never had any sincere concern for the Fells Acres children. There is no question that these children were abused -- but not by the Amirault family. Any sane person who studies this case realizes that the children were abused by Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, Patricia Bernstein, Larry Hardoon, Susan Kelley, Dr. Eli Newberger, and others. The abuse continues to this day, aided and abetted by DA Coakley, Catherine Sullivan, Lynn Rooney, other members of the Middlesex DA's office, and their political supporters. Because these people exposed the Fells Acres children to an enormous amount of highly sexualized interrogation, even forcing them to play with anatomically correct dolls, it is entirely fair to allege that these people are guilty of child sexual abuse. By trying to silence Cheryl, Coakley may hope to protect the real guilty parties in this case. We must see that this does not happen.
Meanwhile, Gerald Amirault still languishes behind bars. We will continue to fight for him and others unjustly imprisoned, in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
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Most of the court activity of the past few years has centered on the trial on Violet and Cheryl Amirault. But the evidence that convicted Gerald was just as flimsy, and Gerald has remained imprisoned since 1986. The difference is that Violet and Cheryl were assigned reasonable and decent judges, and Gerald was not. The women's original judge, Paul Sullivan, believes that their convictions should be overturned. When Sullivan retired, the case was given to Judge Robert Barton. Barton is so convinced that a miscarriage of justice occurred that he recused himself, believing he could no longer be impartial. Judge Borenstein proved himself a thoughtful and cautious jurist. But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, choosing to place finality above justice, rejected Borenstein's humane and well-reasoned decision to give Cheryl a new trial.
Gerald was tried by Elizabeth Dolan, a True Believer in Ritual Abuse and "repressed" memory. During Gerald's trial, Dolan disregarded all normal rules that protect the rights of the accused. (In 1993, Dolan presided over another outrageous miscarriage of justice, the conviction of Ray and Shirley Souza on the basis not only of coerced and fabricated children's testimony, but also on the basis or "recovered repressed" memories of the Souza's 24-year-old daughter, who had a dream that her parents raped her.) Dolan, fortunately, has retired and can do no more harm to the innocent. But the cruelty and obstinacy of Massachusetts' highest court remains a terrible obstacle for Gerald.
Stating that "we are stubborn, but not stupid," Gerald's lawyers on April 19, 2000, petitioned Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci to commute Gerald's sentence. I attended the press conference, and wrote this account. A hearing on Gerald's petition was held on September 20, 2000. (Click here for my account of the hearing.) On July 6, 2001, the Massachusetts Parole Board voted 5-0 in support of commutation. But on February 19, 2002, the cowardly and incompetent Massachusetts governor -- Jane Swift -- refused to approve the commutation.
Those of us who care about justice, however, will fight on. We won't let the bastards defeat us.
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How Could the Amiraults Have Been Convicted By Such Shoddy Evidence?
How was such madness possible? The national wave of daycare hysteria began in 1983 when similar outlandish accusations were made in California at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Because of national media-generated panic, copycat cases (such as Fells Acres) sprung up all over the country. Innocent people such as Kelly Michaels in New Jersey, workers at the Little Rascals Day Care in Edenton, North Carolina, and Bernie Baran of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, were sent to prison. The more horrible the accusation, the less evidence a prosecutor needs to convict. (If the accusation is horrible enough, the prosecution needs no evidence at all.) Janet Reno herself prosecuted three very dubious cases, and was rewarded by being made US Attorney General. With a few honorable exceptions (such as Alan Rubenstein, DA of Bucks County, Pennsylvania) politically ambitious prosecutors such as Harshbarger exploited the mindless hysteria for all it was worth.
During the 80s, cultural anxieties about sex were at fever pitch, and the panic was promoted across the political spectrum. (Not that it's all that much better today.) The leaders of the conservative backlash against the sexual liberation of the 60s gained political power with the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1978, Anita Bryant had unleashed a wave of national homophobia with a campaign called (naturally) Save Our Children. The AIDS epidemic not only devastated the gay community, but reinforced the notion that not only were gay people dangerous, sex itself was dangerous.
"Originally, homophobic paranoia" is at the root of daycare sex-abuse panic, maintains Debbie Nathan, a journalist who has written extensively on the topic, for the Village Voice, New York Times, and others. "In the late 1970s and early 1980s," says Nathan, "a Boston-area child protection researcher, psychiatric nurse Ann Burgess, began elaborating the totally unfounded idea that gay men were organizing into international 'sex rings' to fly boys around the world, distribute them among networks of men, and make child pornography. This notion enjoyed a lot of currency in the Justice Department and police departments during the Reagan years. Burgess and one of her students, Susan Kelley [an interrogator in the Amirault case], went on to promulgate the belief that 'sex rings' had extended to satanist groups operating in daycare centers."
Feminists -- rightly enraged that we live in a society that treats women unfairly and frustrated with the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment -- looked for other campaigns. Under the leadership of Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem and others, they most unfortunately promoted the notion that sex is rape, and joined forces with religious conservatives in an attempt to stamp out "pornography." In 1980, the publication of Michelle Remembers popularized the notion of widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse and the scientifically baseless theory of "repressed" memory.
Daycare was generally suspect among conservatives because it enabled women to abandon their "proper" roles as wives and mothers and join the workforce. Men who worked in daycare were doubly suspect -- not only were they enabling women to abandon their traditional roles, but they had themselves abandoned traditional male roles by caring for children. (After all, something must be "wrong" with a man who chooses to nurture children.) Almost every daycare case began with a male worker being accused of sexually molesting a little boy. Mothers who were new to the workforce, and who had reluctantly entrusted the care of their children to strangers, were easily panicked. Given this irrational atmosphere, jointly created by the left and the right and whipped to a frenzy by the sensationalizing media, it's not surprising that the Amiraults were convicted.
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Thank God, no.
As has been mentioned, the Amirault case is far from unique. The McMartin case, for example, resulted in the longest and most expensive trials in American history. (Not a single guilty verdict was returned.) Many convictions that have been obtained in cases outside of Massachusetts (Kelly Michaels, Little Rascals, Bakersfield CA, and others) have since been overturned because of the terrible errors made during investigation and prosecution. But none of the Massachusetts convictions (Amirault, Souza, Baran, etc.) have been overturned with finality. Why do Massachusetts prosecutors fight so stubbornly to keep innocent people behind bars? Not wanting to admit error, of course, is human nature. But that hardly counts as excuse, especially when you consider the terrible sufferings that have been inflicted upon innocent people.
Harshbarger's statements have been most troubling. He emphasizes that the Amiraults were convicted, not by one but by "two juries of responsible Massachusetts citizens." Massachusetts juries, in other words, never make mistakes -- at least when they convict. In Salem, for example, twenty people were convicted (and hanged) in separate trials where judges and juries were "responsible Massachusetts citizens." (In several of the Salem trials, the accused actually confessed.) By Harshbarger's thesis, Governor Phipps made a terrible mistake in halting the witch trials. And declaring a Day of Contrition was an insult to "the real victims" who suffered the pain and trauma inflicted by the witches of Salem. Harshbarger's other tactic has been to assert falsely that those who ask justice for the Amiraults wish to (1) "end child sexual-abuse prosecutions based on child witnesses" and (2) "to absolutely negate that child abuse occurs." As for Harshbarger's first allegation, a major intent of Maggie Bruck and Stephen Ceci's work, for example, is to establish guidelines that protect the credibility of child witnesses. As for the second allegation, no supporter of justice for the Amiraults has ever denied the reality of child abuse -- and Harshbarger damn well knows it. Harshbarger has also claimed there are "major differences" between Fells Acres and other cases, such as McMartin and Kelly Michaels. Harshbarger must know that this is also not true. But it is at least interesting that he seems to acknowledge that there have been serious mistakes made in some of the daycare cases.
Discussions about the motivations of others are usually by necessity speculative. No one can know for certain what goes on in the mind and heart of another. When people behave irrationally and without offering convincing explanations, it is legitimate to speculate. But speculation must be constrained by logic. Alternatives must be weighed. For example, either Harshbarger and the prosecutors sincerely believe that the Amiraults are guilty or they do not. Both possibilities have alarming implications.
During the mid-80s, our thinking about the day-care cases was clouded by general hysteria promoted in and by the media. The existence of widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse and "repressed" memories of childhood sexual abuse was commonly accepted, even though no credible evidence existed to support either theory. The social panic at the time much resembled the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s.
The "theory of denial" was also then widely accepted. According to this theory, the more vehemently a person denies something, the more likely it is to be true. This theory had -- and still has -- limited applicability to alcoholism and drug abuse. The alcoholic denies his or her problem in order to protect the addiction. I speak here from experience -- I'm a recovering alcoholic who has been clean and sober for well over 15 years. When I was drinking I denied my problem because I knew admitting it would oblige me to do something about it.
The theory of denial was misapplied in most other areas, including sexual abuse. In limited instances it still made some sense: if the victim was unable to escape the abuser (a child in the home, for example, or a spouse economically dependent on an abuser) the victim might deny abuse out of fear of retaliation or abandonment. But at that time it was commonly claimed that victims denied generally, even if there was no threat or fear of retaliation. It was even asserted without evidence (and still is by some) that denial can even cause a person to massively "repress" all memory of abuse, even when abuse is repeated over a period of years.
In the Amirault case, all of the alleged victims initially denied abuse. They had to be questioned over and over again before they would "disclose." But at the time, reluctance to disclose was actually taken as supporting evidence. In the words of Dan Williams, once of the Amirault attorneys, abused children were thought to be like "locked vaults." Thanks to the work of Ceci, Bruck, and other experimental psychologists, we now know that this reasoning was erroneous. But there was scant hard evidence at the time. (There was also scant evidence about which physical and behavioral symptoms might reliably distinguish abused from non-abused children.)
But much more is now known. And either the prosecutors have kept themselves abreast of current research or they have not. If they have not, that amounts to professional malpractice, since similar cases may arise again.
If they have kept themselves abreast of research, and they still consider the Amiraults guilty, then either they have not understood the research or they have been unwilling to believe it. Both explanations are plausible. First of all, Americans in general are not well trained in science and scientific method, and lawyers generally are no exception. Most people don't understand the crucial differences between scientists (who rigorously test hypotheses by repeatable experiments and submit their results for peer review) and clinicians (e.g., medical doctors, therapists) who treat people and may frame hypotheses based on intuition and experience. A hypothesis so framed may turn out to be true, but only a scientist has the expertise to test it. There is no such animal as "clinical evidence." For one thing, scientific method requires a control group, which doesn't exist in the clinic. People also misunderstand scientific consensus. And they don't realize that science deals in probabilities. not certainties. (See my account of Prosecutor Lynn Rooney's performance at the 2/18/98 hearing.) Because prosecutors share a general cultural ignorance about science, and because prosecutors are so driven to convict, much junk science finds its way into the courtroom. In the Boston area, among the chief purveyors of junk science are Eli Newberger and the child-abuse unit at prestigious Children's Hospital. The Middlesex District Attorney's office still relies heavily on the "expertise" of Newberger and his staff.
Another possibility is that prosecutors rejected the research because it conflicts with their belief systems. The battle between science and superstition is centuries old (and superstition, I fear, may be winning.) For a great many people, including an unfortunate number of feminists, belief in very prevalent (even near-universal) childhood sexual abuse has become an article of near-religious faith. And only evidence consistent with this belief is accepted. "Faith is believing something even when you know it ain't true," is a remark oft attributed to Mark Twain. Perhaps this is an unfair definition of faith, but it's a good definition of fanaticism. And well-meaning fanatics, such as Eli Newberger, exert far too much influence on prosecutors.
The other major possibility is the most distressing of all: Harshbarger and the prosecutors don't believe the Amiraults are guilty, but want them in prison anyway. It's a possibility I'd like to dismiss but cannot. To admit error now would exact a great political cost and the political stakes for several are very high: Harshbarger ran for Governor; Tom Reilly was elected Massachusetts Attorney General; Martha Coakley (who prosecuted the Souzas and Louise Woodward) is the new Middlesex County DA. Political ambition and lust for power can drive people to do terrible things. Historically, we have rushed to forgive those with the integrity publicly to admit that they had been wrong. But politicians persist in believing that this is something they cannot do. The inability to admit error is perhaps the most dangerous failing in a person in a position of public trust.
Maybe the prosecutors believe that by working to keep innocent people in prison they, like Adolph Eichman, are only doing their jobs. The prosecutors make much of their claim that the ideas presented by Maggie Bruck were also presented by defense experts at the original trials and that the juries rejected them. But at the trials the ideas had been presented as opinions, not facts backed by solid research. The juries rejected these ideas erroneously. At best, the prosecutors can argue that the Amiraults received due process -- and this itself is highly dubious. But the Amiraults most certainly did not receive justice. This apparently matters not at all to the prosecutors. Wrongful convictions are still convictions, and they fight tooth-and-nail to preserve them. But the legal duty of a prosecutor is not convict at any cost. It is to insure that justice is done.
The prosecutors may even sincerely believe that imprisoning innocent people sometimes serves good and noble ends. Larry Hardoon, one of the original prosecutors, has said that society should be "willing to trade off a couple of situations that are really unfair, in exchange for being sure that hundreds of children are protected." The "couple of situations that are really unfair" that Hardoon asks us to accept have destroyed the lives of a great many innocent people. Hardoon's would be a terrifying assertion even if jailing innocent people did protect children. It 's even more terrifying because it does not. On the contrary, jailing innocent people discredits all child-abuse prosecutions, thus diminishing protection for children.
Most of the world's evil is created by people who sincerely believe they are fighting it. No notion has caused more human misery than the belief that the end justifies the means. When the means entails harming the innocent, we may call this the doctrine of expendability: the idea that in the pursuit of ends selfish (e.g., gaining the governorship) or unselfish (e.g., protecting children) some people (never the wealthy, the powerful, or the well-connected, of course) are expendable if their destruction advances the goal.
A dramatic exposition of the doctrine of expendability takes place in one of my favorite movies, The Third Man. Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, a charming sociopath (not unlike certain politicians) who has made a fortune in postwar Vienna by selling adulterated penicillin on the black market, causing the death and crippling of many children. Near the movie's end, when Welles and Joseph Cotton are in the top car of a stopped Ferris Wheel, Welles points down at the moving specks of people below and says to Cotton:Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?....Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we?Here in Massachusetts, too many in government do not think in terms of human beings. Harshbarger and the prosecutors may have calculated that the Amiraults, the Souzas, Bernie Baran, and others are nothing more than dots that they can afford to spare. And the rest of us turn our heads away and do nothing.
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I first personally encountered the Amiraults on January 13, 1997, when I attended a conference in Salem, Massachusetts, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Day of Contrition for the Salem Witch trials (See "Salem's Shadow," the article I co-wrote about this conference with my partner, Jim D'Entremont and "Shalom, Salem" by Carol Reid.) One of the events was a candlelight procession from the Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Memorial. My candle was lit by a bright and charming 12-year-old boy, who I later learned was P.J. Amirault, Gerald's son. P.J. -- the youngest of Gerald's three children -- had been born within days of his father's arrest. Also attending the conference were Cheryl and Violet Amirault, Gerald's wife Patti, and Gerald and Patti's two daughters. I was too shy to introduce myself to any of them.
Violet Amirault With Her Grandchildren Copyright 1997 Elsa Dorfman
On January 14, the Day of Contrition concluded with the presentation of the Morton Stavis Memorial award to Dan Williams and Michael Snedeker, two attorneys who have been successful in reversing wrongful convictions. By chance, I was seated in the front row, just one empty seat away from Cheryl and Violet. The award to Williams was presented by Kelly Michaels Romano, who, having weathered half a decade of incarceration for fantasized crimes, had come to Salem with her husband and child. At one point during the presentation Kelly mentioned having just said good-bye to her mother, and how that reminded her of all those times in prison when her mother came to visit, and the anguish that she felt when visitation time ran out and they were forced to say good-bye. She began to cry, and Cheryl and Violet Amirault began to cry with her. There was a short, rapt pause as waves of emotion tore through the room. The horror of years of injustice rose up like a dark and terrible shadow, and everyone was overwhelmed.
When the concluding ceremony was over, I finally had the courage to introduce myself to Violet, and to tell her I believed that she, her daughter and her son would soon all be free. At the time I did believe that. Their appeal was before the Supreme Judicial Court, and similar convictions were being overturned all over the country. It never occurred to me at that time that the SJC would be so contemptuous of justice as to turn them down.
I got the Amiraults' telephone numbers from the attendees list at the Salem conference. I helped organize a support rally for the Amiraults, which took place 6 April 1997 at the Unitarian Church, Harvard Square, Cambridge. I phoned Patti the night before Easter. One of the daughters answered and told me that Patti was out buying things for Easter baskets. I was an emotional wreck and Patti -- at the eye of this storm for 13 years -- was tending to the ordinary things necessary to being alive and part of a family. Patti is a fourth-grade teacher, a softball coach, and a devoted hockey mother. She fed and entertained a mob of teenagers after her eldest daughter's prom. She has fought this battle long and hard without stinting her duties as a mom. In a lifetime, one meets few true heroes or heroines. Patti is a true heroine.
I began calling Violet almost daily shortly after the rally. She reminded me of my own mother, now 77, and my mother's sisters and oldest friends. My mother did daycare in our home after my youngest brother was in school. A different roll of the dice, and my mother would have suffered Violet's fate. I'm glad I had the opportunity to get to know Violet a little. The horror of her situation weighed heavily upon her. She often wondered how many days might be left before she'd be taken to prison. I remember her once saying, "I want my mother," and she told me a few things about that remarkable woman. But Violet never indulged in self pity. She retained her sense of humor. And she'd often ask about me or about how my writing was going.
After Borenstein extended her parole, I only spoke with Violet one more time. She called me to ask us to watch a TV show she and Cheryl had done. I stopped the daily calls because I felt she'd earned some peace, and because I thought she'd most like to hear from those nearest and dearest to her. But every few weeks I did call to leave a message on her voicemail to let her know she was still in my thoughts. The last message I left was right after I learned of her illness. The end came swiftly. A few weeks later this gentle courageous woman (who Scott Harshbarger once likened to John Wayne Gacy) was at eternal peace.
The only conversation of any length I've had with Cheryl was at the reception after her mother's funeral. I had long been worried about Cheryl because she seemed to me to be so fragile in her public appearances. But that day she seemed strong and she seemed to have renewed her hope. She'd taken care of her mother until the end, and I felt that Violet's steel had passed into her. The steel had been there all along, of course. I knew that Cheryl was going to fight on -- for herself, for her brother, for her family, and to honor the memory of her mother.
I have written Gerald, spoken with him by telephone several times, and recently visited him for the first time. [See the account at the end of this section.] He is as gentle and courageous as his mother and sister, and seems sustained by a deep faith. From talking with Patti and others, I have learned that Patti is by no means a single parent. To the fullest extent the state has permitted it, Gerald has been a good husband to Patti and a loving father to his three children from his prison cell.
There are other family members one always sees at court appearances. Al LeFave is Cheryl's husband. They were married less than a year and about to plan a family of their own when tragedy struck. Al is former Malden policeman who described himself in a recent Boston Herald article as a "foul-mouthed ex-Marine." No matter the outcome, Al and Cheryl will never have the family they once wanted. And, according to the same Herald article, their marriage may not ultimately survive the terrible stress placed upon it my the Massachusetts legal system. But Al has never doubted the innocence of his wife, brother-in-law or mother-in-law. He proudly stands by them all. "It's the Marine way," he says.
Another person one always sees is Patti's great dad, whom I only know as Mr. McGonagle. He is a good-natured gentleman with (as you might guess from his name) a map of Ireland for a face. Right now he's undergoing chemotherapy, which made his attendance at the most recent hearings very strenuous. But he was there as much as humanly possible to lend his support.
And of course there's Gerald and Patti's daughters. I remember one day after a press conference, I was standing near one of them as she was being interviewed by a particularly dense representative of the Boston media. At the end of the interview the girl was asked her name. And then the reporter most tactlessly asked, "And what is your last name?", implying that any reasonable person would change it to escape the shame. "Amirault!" the young lady replied with obvious pride. And it is a name to be borne with pride.
Before the hearing one day, I also heard one of Gerald and Patti's daughters telling a friend all about Titanic, which she'd seen three times. Another typical teenager in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, I thought. And then I thought about how typical, how ordinary these people are. I remember the reception following Violet's funeral. It was a beautiful September day (Massachusetts may have terrible justice but it has excellent fall weather), and the uncles and aunts cousins and neighbors and friends were all gathered. Just like my family, I thought. Just like almost any family. Such ordinary people. And yet how extraordinary they all are. History has thrust an unbearable burden upon them, and they bear it with strength, courage, and dignity. If the Amiraults are expendable, then we all are expendable. And if good and decent citizens are expendable, then may God help each and every one of us.
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I finally met Gerry Amirault today.
My friend Frank Kane called me up last week and invited me to go with him to the prison. Gerry had invited Jim and me to come see him before, but it's a little difficult for us since we don't drive. Jim would have liked very much to go today, but Gerry is only allowed two visitors per day. (We do hope to take the bus down to Plymouth sometime for a joint visit.)
It's nearly impossible for anyone to visit a prison and not feel oppressed and demeaned. Inside the barb-wire covered walls, freedom and bondage are not abstract concepts. The locked doors, guards, and thick glass plates separating prisoner from visitor are too tangible. When Gerry entered the cubicle he placed his palm against the glass, and Frank and I in turn did the same -- a poor substitute for a handshake, touching cold glass instead of warm flesh.
Gerry is a good-looking man, even in the horrid bright-orange prison garb he's forced to wear -- something of a surprise to someone who knows him mainly from the awful pictures run by the Boston Globe. (The Globe always managed to make Cheryl and the late Violet look as bad as possible too.) He is very spirited, talkative, even cheerful. He speaks with great passion about the things he cares about -- his family (especially Patti and the kids, his sister, and his late mother) and the terrible injustices that the Commonwealth continues to inflict upon that family. Gerry is also very excited about a two-hour show that David Brudnoy plans to do on their case on radio-station WRKO on the evening of April 8. (WRKO is trying to arrange a phone hookup so that Gerry can be included as well as Cheryl, some of the legal team, and others.)
I find it difficult to be a good visitor because the prison weighs too heavily upon me -- I realize that in an hour Frank and I will walk out but that Gerry will not. The Fells Acre nightmare has dominated Gerry's life since September of 1984 -- nearly 14 years ago. I try to imagine what it might be like to be imprisoned for 14 years for something you did not do. I can't. I think I'd go mad. But perhaps that's how Gerry once felt, and his present strength and patience grew in him slowly. I remember seeing a picture recently of Nelson Mandela showing President Clinton the prison where Mandela had been confined for 18 years. Perhaps if one becomes sufficiently spiritually strong to survive unjust confinement, one can survive anything. Perhaps only a Nelson Mandela can understand the soul of a Gerry Amirault -- and vice versa.
After an hour and a half a guard signals to Gerry that it's time to end the visit. Once again we place our hands against the hard glass. We wave goodbye one final time, and then go to the lockers where we were asked to stow our belts, keys, watches, etc. We walk out into the absurdly unseasonable 90+ degree March day, relieved to have the freedom to walk away from that terrible place. And yet I can't enjoy the relief, because Gerry remains behind bars, and the politicians who put him there remain successful and honored. What happened to Gerry could happen to me. It could happen to you. As long as Gerald Amirault remains imprisoned, none can call themselves free.
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To the best of my knowledge, the first person unconnected with the Amirault family or defense team who undertook an extensive investigation of this case is Jonathan Harris, an associate professor of chemical engineering who became interested in the daycare cases in July of 1993 after watching a Frontline documentary called "Innocence Lost" about the Little Rascals case in Edenton, North Carolina. At the time, Harris taught at MIT and in January, 1994, he learned of the Amirault case from an internet mailing list. Harris became interested, because it occurred in Middlesex County, where he then lived and worked. Harris was able to read the trial transcripts and a great many original source documents. At his web site is available:
"The Return of the Witch Hunts", a short description of the case. "Junk Science. Junk Justice", a more detailed account. Important additional links to decisions, documents, and articles. Information about other cases.
Beginning on January 30, 1995, Dorothy Rabinowitz begin publishing excellent articles about the Amirault case in the Wall Street Journal. Her first three were called "Darkness in Massachusetts," parts I, II, and III.
A Darkness in Massachusetts 01/30/95 A Darkness in Massachusetts II 03/14/95 A Darkness in Massachusetts III 05/12/95
Here is another excellent Rabinowitz column, "Judgment in Massachusetts" (8/24/99)
Excellent summary of the Fells Acres case by Mark Pendergrast. Hugo Cunningham has excellent information about the case. "Memories Questioned," by Tom Mashberg in the Boston Herald. An excellent analysis can be found at the web site of the Ontario Consultants of Religious Tolerance, run by four volunteers from three different religions. Their article is called The Fells "Acre" Ritual Abuse Case.
The concluding paragraph is quite powerful. It reads:In our opinion, no ritual abuse occurred, and all three defendants are innocent of any crime. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts perpetrated a massive injustice, and will probably repeat the evil when the Borenstein decision is appealed. The Supreme Court has basically admitted that at least some of the crimes that the Amiraults were convicted of never happened; they have admitted that the Amiraults were denied their constitutional rights during the trial. But they feel that the community's desire to have closure on this case is more important that the fact that the convicted are actually innocent. While other courts in other states are reviewing similar cases and releasing the formerly convicted, the Massachusetts courts carry on their own private Witch hunt in the tradition of Salem, MA. Meanwhile, past improper interview techniques have left the children (now teenagers) with memories of horrible abuse. And although the abuse never happened, their false memories will disable them all, to some degree, for the rest of their lives. Violet Amirault is now beyond legal persecution. Cheryl LeFave remains in a legal limbo. Tooky's sentence runs out a quarter of the way through the next century.The OCRT site also has Information about 42 other cases.
Dan Finneran, one of the Amirault appelate attorneys, has constucted a detailed account and analysis of the case. Also check out the Appendix that Finneran wrote for the first Fells Acres new-trial motion. On September 13, 1999, the Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly published an unprecedented editorial about the case, titled "Travesty of Justice." On September 15, 1999, Boston's gay and lesbian weekly, Bay Windows, published this strong and courageous editorial. Here's a rejected Boston Globe op-ed, "No Finality in Fells Acres," by Professor Bernard Rosenthal. I also recommend this article by Dr. David Lotto about the daycare sex-abuse hysteria in general. An excellent account of the January 1997 conference in Salem, Massachusetts is provided by Carol Reid in her article, "Shalom, Salem."
Also, please read Justice Denied, the magazine for the wrongly convicted.
A major problem with raising public awareness about this case has been the inadequate and/or biased coverage by the local media, especially The Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. Here is a very thoughtful analysis of the local media situation by Hugo Cunningham:
Fells Acres day-care Ritual Abuse case and the Boston press
Also, check out my Index of Dubious Accusations and Convictions.
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As a gay man, I first became aware of the national sex panic in the late 70s because of Anita Bryant's homophobic "Save Our Children" campaign. When the daycare prosecutions began in 1983 I paid not much attention because I was in the early stages of rebuilding a life seriously hampered by two decades of alcoholism.
Sobriety gave me a new lease on life and while continuing to earn my living as a computer programmer, I began to write both fiction and non-fiction. I eventually became active in the National Writers Union (NWU), one of America's largest and most active writers organizations and an affiliate of the UAW (Local 1981). I also became active in the fight against violence, against discrimination, against censorship, and against injustice. In 1990, I helped found the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression. In 1992, I became Chair of the Political Issues Committee for the National Writers Union, a position I held for over five years. I also served a one-year-term on the Union's National Executive Board. As Political Issues Chair, it was my responsibility to fight censorship on behalf of the union.
Because so much censorship was the direct result of the chilling effect of the still ongoing sex panic, I became interested also in some of its other manifestations, especially the daycare cases and the theory of "repressed" memories of sexual abuse. I met two other NWU activists who had done extensive research on these subjects: Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory and Debbie Nathan, co-author of Satan's Silence. I read their books and I was horrified. Like Jonathan Harris, I was living at the time in Middlesex County and became especially concerned with the Amirault tragedy, because it was local and because it is one of the very worst cases on record.
I am not a parent. I am the eldest of six and I have eighteen nieces and nephews, whom I love dearly. I'd cut off my right arm before I'd allow anyone to harm any of those kids in any way. I have very little patience left with those people who insist on telling me that I can't possibly care about children.
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S.J. Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association, Washington DC (1995) Ceci and Bruck present their research, demonstrating how to ensure the reliability of children's testimony and avoid the problems caused by prior methods. Essential. Much more research has been done since 1995 so look out for an updated edition. Debbie Nathan & Michael Snendeker, Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, BasicBooks, New York NY (1995). Excellent discussion of similar cases, especially the McMartin case and the Bakersfield, CA case. Kathryn Lyon, Witch Hunt: A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice, Avon Books, New York NY (1998) The story of the witch hunt and persecution of innocent citizens that took place in Wenatchee, WA. Janet Reno, not surprisingly, refused to stop the madness. Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, Columbia University Press, New York NY (1997) Showalter chronicles the history of hysteria from Charcot to the present and discusses six modern hysterical epidemics and the role of media in promoting them: alien abduction, chronic fatigue syndrome, Satanic Ritual Abuse, recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, and multiple personality disorder (MPD). Margaret A. Hagen, Whores of the Court: The Fraud of Psychiatric Testimony and the Rape of American Justice, ReganBooks, New York NY (1997) A discussion of the enormous damage that has been done and is still being done by pseudo-scientific "expert" testimony, especially by psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and other clinicians. Philip Jenkins, Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, Yale University Press, New Haven and New London CT (1998). A detailed and depressing history of American sex panics from 1890 to the present. Thomas A. Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Hoeber, New York NY (1961) Szasz perceived the problem clearly four decades ago. Why didn't we listen?
Richard Ofshe & Ethan Waters, Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles (1994) Excellent! A well-reasoned and carefully documented indictment of repressed-memory therapy and the terrible suffering it has wrought. Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, 2nd Edition, Upper Access Books, Hinesburg VT (1996) Comprehensive and clearly written book about the "repressed" memory hysteria and the terrible human cost it exacts. Has an excellent chapter about the McMartin case, Little Rascals (Edenton NC), Country Walk (one of Janet Reno's three highly dubious cases), the Amirault case, and the Souza case. Daniel L. Schacter, Searching for Memory: the Brain, the Mind, and the Past, BasicBooks, New York NY (1996) Schacter, who chairs the Psychology Department at Harvard University, is perhaps the world's foremost expert in memory and is one of the most cited psychologists for any topic. Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Houghton Mifflin, Boston/New York (2001) Contains a discussion of the Amirault case in the chapter dealing with suggestibility. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus & Katherine Ketcham, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, St. Martin's Press, New York NY (1994) Dr. Loftus, President of the American Psychological Society, is one of the world's leading experts on false memory. Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan: A Case of Recovered Memory and the Shattering of an American Family, Alfred A. Knopf, New York NY (1994) An account of the horrific Ingram case, based on "recovered" memories, in Olympia, Washington. Paul Ingram is still in prison for crimes that all sane people now admit never occurred. Moira Johnson, Spectral Evidence, The Ramona Case: Incest, Memory, and Truth on Trial in Napa Valley, Houghton Mifflin, Boston New York (1997) A riveting account of an important repressed-memory case. Nicholas P. Spanos, Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective, American Psychological Association, Washington DC (1996) A convincing and clear debunking of the MPD phenomena by the late Dr. Spanos.
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