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Another Wrongful Conviction Set Aside
The National Post July 10, 2001
Man at heart of 1980s child abuse case may be freed Daycare worker convicted on recovered memories By Jan Cienski, National Post
WASHINGTON - A figure at the heart of a 1980s child abuse panic may soon be released from jail, years after much of the evidence against him was discredited as the imaginings of children.
Jane Swift, the Governor of Massachusetts, is weighing whether Gerald "Tooky" Amirault should be freed after spending 15 years in prison on charges that the state's Parole Board unanimously found last week left "real and substantial doubt" as to his guilt.
Mr. Amirault, 46, is one of the last people in the United States still in prison in the more than 30 lurid abuse cases that transfixed the nation in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Amirault and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, and his mother, Violet Amirault, owned the Falls Acres Day School in Malden, Mass.
In 1984, the mother of one student called a child abuse hotline, reporting that someone at the school had pulled her son's pants down.
Police summoned social workers, suffused with the then fashionable Freudian theory that child abuse victims often buried horrific memories of sexual exploitation. The social workers interviewed dozens of children, attempting to pry those memories loose.
They dredged up more than 40 tales of Mr. Amirault dressed as a clown who took children to a secret room and violated them with knives or forced them to drink urine. His mother and sister allegedly raped their students, inserting butcher's knives into body orifices and tying them up naked outdoors. One child remembered being thrown around in circles by a robot that also bit her arm.
Much of the testimony was extracted using anatomically correct dolls.
In transcripts that were made public after the Amiraults' trial, adult questioners refused to accept children's statements that nothing happened to them. Instead they badgered the children, rewarding them when they spun graphic tales of abuse and violence.
Despite a complete lack of physical evidence -- no proof of the existence of a "secret room," no evidence that the children had ever mentioned abuse prior to their police interviews, and the exculpatory testimony of five parents and 23 teachers and teachers' aides -- the Amiraults were all convicted.
Mr. Amirault was sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. His sister and mother each got eight- to 20-year sentences.
The daycare centre child abuse phenomenon began in 1984, when seven people were convicted of abusing children in "secret catacombs" under the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles.
The case set off a frenzy and similar reports began surfacing around the world.
"Everyone had to have their own sex crimes case and everyone started targeting daycare centres," said Kimberly Hart, executive director of the Ohio-based National Child Abuse Defense Center.
In state after state, police found daycare centres where children reported Satanic worship, cannibal feasts, food made of excrement, and lurid sexual abuse.
"We just suspended intellectual integrity," said Ms. Hart. "We believed the absurd when it came to child abuse cases."
Canada had its own case in 1992 in Martensville, Sask., where nine people were accused of running a Satanic sex-abuse cult.
The case collapsed when it became clear that what the children were alleging could not have happened. That sort of realization came late for many people convicted of child abuse.
Those jailed in the McMartin case in Los Angeles spent several years in prison before a judge threw out the charges.
In a New York case, a minister spent 10 years in prison before being freed.
In New Jersey, Margaret Kelly Michaels, owner of the Wee Care Day School, was released in 1994 after spending six years in prison after the state Supreme Court condemned investigators for launching "a witch hunt."
Violet Amirault and her daughter were released in 1995 after a judge declared that "one more hour or even one more minute in custody in this case would be improper."
But Mr. Amirault remained behind bars, despite court findings that testimony by children who did not face the accused violated the U.S. Constitution and the increasing disrepute of all daycare abuse convictions.
The Parole Board was Mr. Amirault's last shot at freedom. In its 24-page ruling, the board denounced the flawed interview procedures by social workers that produced the graphic testimony and found the case, "contained little in the way of physical evidence to corroborate in some instances extraordinary, if not bizarre allegations."
But prosecutors and the families of the Fells Acres victims continue to insist that Mr. Amirault is guilty.
"It terrifies me that he may be out, that he may hurt someone again," the mother of a victim told the Boston Herald.
Mrs. Swift, the Massachusetts Governor, has to weigh the shaky reputation of cases like Mr. Amirault's against the fact that child abuse is real. A former youth minister in Salem, Mass., yesterday pleaded guilty to dozens of charges of raping and molesting boys.
At this point, it is probably impossible to figure out if Mr. Amirault is guilty of anything because the recovered-memory technique has fallen into such disrepute and there is no other evidence against him.
"The job within our legal system is to prove that someone did what they were accused of, and given the evidence we now have on how easy it is to influence children, the state failed," Pamela Freyd, executive director of the Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation, said.
National Post Home: http://nationalpost.com/home/ Copyright © 2001 National Post Online National Post Online is a Hollinger / CanWest Publication
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