NO CRUELER TYRANNIES
Gerald Amirault Enjoys His First Days of Freedom in 18 Years.
BY DOROTHY RABINOWITZ
Friday, May 28, 2004 Wall Street Journal - Opinion Journal
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 Amiraults, 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 School 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.
His daughters, 25-year-old Gerrilyn and 24-year-old Katie, note that their mother has a glint of youthful joy now, the first they've seen in all the years of their life together. Yes, she had heard, Patricia Amirault says, that there could be problems in adjustment and such, only to be expected in circumstances like theirs. Yet what problems could there possibly be, she scoffs, that could compare with those she and her husband faced when he was hauled away to prison, declared a monster, and she was left with three small children.
"We got through that, and everything that came after. What can happen now that we couldn't deal with?"
Her 50-year-old husband is, today, both the same man and one remarkably different from the one taken off to prison--a man who exudes an unmistakable inner confidence. Some of that core of assurance, one could guess, stemmed from the way he had dealt with his life behind bars. A man who knew himself to be innocent, as he did; who steadfastly refused to behave otherwise--and refused all the sex-offender treatment programs, whatever it might have gained him--has no doubt learned something about himself more valuable to him, in the end, than a few years' earlier release.
One of his great fears in prison was that he would still be locked up and miss seeing one of his children married. This summer, he will see the first wedding, that of his youngest daughter, Katie. For this, for his stalwart wife and family and for all the days still to be lived with them, he is a grateful man--one also with a huge store of memories and everything still to say, when the time comes.
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and author of "No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times," which you can buy from the OpinionJournal bookstore.