I spent the day in the Kafkaesque world of Massachusetts justice -- at Gerald Amirault's hearing on his petition for commutation of his sentence. The hearing began a little after ten (my partner Jim and I arrived at 9) and didn't end until after 4. There was a lunch break, but I was far too nervous to eat. I also didn't sleep well last night. So I'm making this brief report on too little food and sleep and too much caffeine. I apologize in advance if it is incoherent. (Some of my notes are illegible) But I didn't want to delay in getting something out, as I'm sure the media reports will be scarce and sketchy -- especially outside of Massachusetts. Some of you also attended today's hearing. If I've made errors, please let me know.
Press and spectators were kept out of the actual hearing room, which was only large enough to accommodate the lawyers, family members, and witnesses. We watched from another room via closed-circuit tv. The camera was placed behind the members of the Parole Board, so we never saw the faces of the people asking the questions.
At 10:26, Amirault's attorney, James Sultan, made his opening statement. He thanked the Board for granting the hearing. Sultan acknowledged that guilt or innocence were not at issue in the hearing. But he pointed out that Gerald maintains his innocence and hoped that the Board wouldn't hold that against him. Sultan said that the petition rested on four points: (1) Gerald's sentence was disproportionate to that of his co-defendants; (2) his sentence was disproportionate to that of others convicted of similar crimes; (3) that the release plan provided strong guarantees that Gerald provided no danger to the community; and (4) that all parties would benefit by closure. Sultan said that in addition to Gerald, they would be five witnesses: his wife, Patti, their three children, and a forensic psychiatrist.
Gerald begin by thanking the Board. He said it was now 16 years since the nightmare began. He has tried always to remain positive, and to be a good husband and father. His son P.J. has known him only as a prisoner. He has avoided trouble in prison. He can't admit his guilt because he is innocent. "I've never hurt a child and I never could. I have prayed for wisdom. I still don't understand it. I don't blame the children or the parents -- they've been put through so much too." He wants to attend his daughter's graduation from college next spring. He wants to attend his son's hockey games.
Chairman Pomarole asked if Gerald had improved as a person in prison. Gerald said he did everything available to him. He attended NA and AA. (Gerald is a recovering cocaine addict.) He took advantage of all schooling programs available to him. His opportunities were limited because he was kept in segregation until his transfer to Bay State a year and a half ago. Since entering Bay State, he has been taking college courses offered by Boston University. He did not enter any sex-offender programs, because they require an admission of guilt.
Sultan answered questions from the board about the disproportionate sentencing. Gerald was sentenced from 30-40 years on each count, while his mother and sister were sentenced to 8-20 years. While there were more accusers in Gerald's case, there was no difference in evidence and the accusations were the same. In other cases, people convicted for similar offenses received 4-10 year sentences. He pointed out the the Massachusetts Supreme Court has made it clear that there are no judicial remedies left for Gerald Amirault.
Upon questioning, Gerald told the Board something about his life. He was born 3/1/54. "My dad was an alcoholic. My mom did the best she could under the circumstances." His mother started doing daycare after his father abandoned the family. The Fells Acres School eventually occupied their entire home (they moved elsewhere) and, when it was closed, was licensed for 65 children. Gerald's drug problem began in high school. He has been clean and sober for 17 years, since 9/15/83. The Fells Acres allegations began on 9/5/84. There had been no prior allegation of misconduct at the school, which began operation in the 60s.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was represented at the hearing by Assistant Middlesex County DA Lynn Justice-Has-to-Come-to-an-End Rooney. (Ms. Rooney actually said this at one of Cheryl LeFave's hearings.) Ms. Rooney was at her histrionic best. She said that Gerald was a convicted child rapist and that his guilt should be assumed. She claimed that Gerald made children eat food off his penis. (She liked that one so much she repeated in later.) She claimed that Gerald took children to a "secret room" and committed "multiple acts of anal penetration." She claimed that the Amiraults threatened to kill children's parents. She told about how one child "put little army men" on his window, and this was supposed to be evidence that they were put there to protect him from the evil Amiraults. (As a child, I had toy soldiers. Sometimes I also put them in the window. I wonder who I was protecting myself from?) Rooney also put out the theory that the three Amiraults would send the entire school (children and teachers) out of field trips, except for their chosen victims, who would be left behind. Only the three Amiraults would be left behind to torment the helpless children. I hadn't heard this particular theory before. Field trips are usually done on a class basis, not school wide, because activities are chosen to be age-appropriate.
But Rooney was most adamant that the main reason Gerald must remain in prison is that he refuses to admit his guilt. (As sanctioned spokesperson for Martha Coakley and the Middlesex DA's office, Rooney made it clear that come hell or high water, the DA's office -- at least during the Coakley regime -- will *never* admit that it made a tragic mistake in this case. A mistake that has caused a great many innocent people -- including the accusing children and their parents -- years of needless suffering.) Rooney rightly stated that the children and their families have not been able to begin the healing process because guilt has been denied. But, tragically, the ones who need to admit guilt are the Middlesex County prosecutors (past and present) themselves.
Rooney came in for surprisingly tough grilling from Board member John Kivlin. For 20 years, Kivlin was the toughest prosecutor in the Norfolk County DA's office, and is known in legal circles for his ability to cross examine. It was fascinating watching him cross-examine another prosecutor. A year ago, The Middlesex County DA's office did not oppose the revise-and-revoke motion that kept Cheryl LeFave from returning to prison. But a year later the same DA's office adamantly opposes Gerald Amirault's commutation petition. Kivlin felt there was "an appearance if not reality of disparity." Rooney tried to justify the disparity, blaming it on the wishes of the accusing families. But Kivlin demanded to know whether it wasn't also the DA's responsibility to see that Gerald be treated fairly. None of Rooney's answers made any sense and Kivlin gave the impression of not buying them. Rooney admitted that her office would offer no evidence to show that Gerald would be a threat if released. (She insisted, however, that Gerald would pose a risk.) Rooney also claimed that the famous magic room had been found. She insisted that Fells Acres children had identified "several rooms" at the school as the magic room. (Space was at a premium at the school. All available space was used for classrooms and offices.) Kivlin seemed also somewhat skeptical about Rooney's field-trip theory. (Gerald was the driver for the school's field trips and thus wouldn't likely stay behind.)
The first witness during the afternoon session was Gerald's wife, Patti. She was an excellent witness, as were the three children. Patti has a MA in education from Wheelock, and has been a fourth-grade teacher in the Malden public schools since 1984. She met Gerald in first grade. They were married in July of 1977. Gerald's drug abuse had been a problem for their marriage. But he entered treatment at Mclean's Hospital on 9/15/83 and turned his life around. After treatment, he became very involved with his family. Patti said, "This case has been devastating to our family. We lost everything we had." Gerald and Patti parented the kids together through frequent visits and daily phone calls. "My husband is extremely gentle, very caring of people ... He's an incredible guy." Patti said that when Gerald leaves prison, he will have a good support system, a loving family, and a job.
There were few dry eyes left in the room after the three children testified. Geralyn is 21 and a senior at St. Anselm College. She is old enough to remember the things she and her dad used to do. She also said, "I remember the day the police came to take my father away." She told about the time when she was a little girl and went in the post office to mail a letter to her father. She handed it to a postal worker and asked to buy a stamp. The worker asked in a very loud voice, "Why are you sending a letter to that evil man." Geralyn left the building in tears. When she was young, she sometimes pretended to other kids that her father was away at work or overseas. But she came to be very proud of her dad. He is not bitter, but she found it hard not to be bitter. She wants her father there for her graduation in May. "I don't want him left out again." From the beginning to this day, she has ended her phone conversations the same way. "I kiss the receiver and tell him that I love him ... It would be unbelievable to sit and watch tv with him, or to teach him how a computer works."
Katie, 20, is a junior at Curry College. "I was devastated when my dad was taken away." Katie said that her parents knew the terrible burden that had been placed on the children. "But they never allowed me to use it as an excuse for not doing my best." "Justice will prevail some day, and some day we will be together again." "My dad is the strongest, most loving person that I know ... I hate going there [to prison] because I hate seeing him there."
P.J. -- who just turned 16 -- was born a few days after his father's arrest. He's a high-school sophomore and plays football, lacrosse, and hockey. His dad keeps up on everything that he does. "I want to make my father proud of me, the way I'm proud of him." "My dad has never watched me perform at any sporting event ... it bothers me that the only meal I've ever shared with my dad has come from a vending machine."
After the family testimony, the final witness was a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Bernard Katz. Katz has been a licensed psychiatrist since 1968, worked for many years at the Bridgewater Treatment Center, and has done around 50 evaluations to determine whether a person is sexually dangerous. He teaches at Harvard Medical School and Boston University Medical School. He may be accepting a position at Brown.
Katz admitted that psychiatric evaluation for dangerousness was not an exact science. Most psychiatrists overpredict dangerousness. Katz made no assumption of Gerald's innocence. Katz read the available records, including the psychiatric evaluation down at McClean hospital (where Gerald received substance-abuse treatment) almost a year before his arrest. Gerald left McClean with a good prognosis. There was np psychopathology, no character pathology, and no sexual deviation. Katz said that, in his experience, actual sexual dangerous people seldom hide their problems and usually talk freely about them. Katz saw no evidence of psychopathology in Gerald Amirault. He also interviewed Patti Amirault, who he described as a "straightforward, straight-shooting person -- not an enabler." Katz said that the only Amirault marital problems were apparently due to Gerald's substance-abuse problem. Gerald's mother opposed Gerald's going in for treatment, but Patti was insistent on it as a condition for the marriage to continue. Katz asserted that Gerald has not been using drugs in prison.
Katz said that Gerald would be no risk to the community. He couldn't recall a case where a real sex offender has denied the facts. He found nothing that suggested that Gerald fitted the picture of a sex offender. None of the usual stigmata existed. Gerald had no erotic interest in children.
A female member of the Board demanded how Gerald couldn't be a pedophile, given that he had been convicted of raping nine children. Katz said he knew of no explanation. (The Board member seemed to want to force Katz to say that he believed Gerald innocent. This Katz rightly refused to do.) Katz said, "I'm not a bleeding heart." He would not be there saying he believed that Gerald posed no risk if he thought there was any chance that he might be a danger. "Nothing in his presentation or his past indicates that he is a pedophile."
The rest of the hearing was testimony from those opposing commutation -- one of the accusers, several mothers, and one father. There was audio but no video for this testimony. One mother didn't appear but submitted a letter, which was read.
The accusing child -- now a married woman and a mother -- was in tears. She said it was unbelievable that anyone would think about letting that man out of jail. She said that she still can't go to a circus because of the clowns. She said that she suffers from migraines and has a weight problem. She said that she will move out of Massachusetts if Gerald gets out of prison.
The parents testimony was in the same vein. The Amiraults were accused of destroying the lives of children. One woman said that Gerald deserved more pain and torture. "The anger within me is pushing towards a disastrous outburst." Another mother claimed that the children were portrayed as liars by the media. (Something I've certainly never seen.) She accused the Amiraults and their supporters of "revictimizing" them.
Listening to this tortured testimony, one didn't doubt that these parents sincerely believed that awful things had happened to their children. (And indeed awful things did happen -- but the Amiraults were not the perpetrators.) These parents (and the child who testified) were justly filled with grief and rage for what had been done to them.
The terrible tragedy of this case is that these people are blaming the wrong people. The true villains in the Fells Acres case never have -- and probably never will -- be punished for the innocent lives that they destroyed. One can forgive them -- the prosecutors, the police, the social workers, the therapists -- for being caught up in the hysteria of the time. The panic was nationwide, inflamed by an often irresponsible media. But so much more is now known -- about the behavior of real child abusers, about the suggestibility of young children -- that good intentions are no longer sufficient excuse.
We can hope for little. We can hope for the judgment of history. The medieval church forced Gallileo to recant his view that the earth was not the center of the universe. But the fact remained -- the earth did travel around the sun. There was nothing that their official dogmas could do to alter that basic fact.
Any sober, reasonable person who examines the Fells Acres case and the relevant science comes to one conclusion: the Amiraults did not do the things they were accused of doing. And nothing can alter that fact. If Gerald Amirault were to say tomorrow, "I am guilty," even *that* couldn't alter the facts. (Innocent people do confess to crimes they didn't commit.) Gerald is innocent. His sister is innocent. His mother was innocent.
It is the need to alter facts that makes the Middlesex DA's office so adamant about demanding that Gerald Amirault confess to a crime he did not commit. To satisfy their need to appear right even when they are so demonstrably wrong. But facts remain facts. And there is nothing that Martha Coakley and her assistants can do about it.
We can also hope that a majority of the Parole Board will see that no good can come of perpetuating the monstrous injustice known as Fells Acres. It is a tough board. Five of the six members are former prosecutors, police officers, or parole officers. The sixth is a woman whose parents and brother were brutally murdered. But these are not people -- such as Harshbarger, Reilly and Coakley -- who have built their political careers on Fells Acres or cases like it. One can hope that they will see reason and do the right thing.
After the accusers testified, Gerald Amirault said, "I wish they didn't have to believe this because it's not true. There are so many victims in this case."
We are all victims of this case. Fells Acres -- and cases like it -- have shattered my own belief in our system of justice. Nationwide, confidence in the system erodes. The Middlesex DA's office continues to whistle in the dark, pretending that nothing is wrong. (In some circles, this is called denial.) A system incapable of correcting its own errors is a system that doesn't work. If the system worked, the Amiraults would never have been charged. If the system worked, they would never have been brought to trial and convicted. If the system worked, they would've been freed with apologies years ago. It would be nice to be able to say that the freeing of Gerald Amirault would prove that the system does work. But the repairing of the criminal-justice system will take many years of hard work on the part of good and concerned citizens. But this process can't begin -- at least here in Massachusetts -- while Gerald Amirault is behind bars. Until he is free, none of us -- not even the Middlesex County DAs -- can call ourselves free.