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Another Wrongful Conviction Set Aside
http://www.nationalpost.com/news/world/story.html?f=/stories/20010710/614688.html
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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