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Justice, Not So Swift | The Nation

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Justice, Not So Swift

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On October 31 Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts pardoned five women who had been convicted and executed in the Salem witch trials in 1692. Well, better late than never--what's a few centuries one way or another? Once you're dead you have all the time in the world. It's the living for whom justice delayed is justice denied, and on that score Governor Swift is not doing so well. On February 20 she rejected the recommendation of the state parole board, known for its sternness and strictness, and refused to commute the thirty-to-forty-year sentence of Gerald Amirault, who was convicted in the 1986 Fells Acre Day School child sex abuse case and who has already served sixteen years in prison. Violet Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, his mother and sister, who were convicted with him, served eight years before being released.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Since the l980s, when a wave of now notorious prosecutions of alleged ritual child sex abuse swept the country, many of the techniques used to elicit children's stories of abuse have been discredited: leading and coercive questions, multiple reinterviews, promises of rewards, suggestive use of anatomical dolls. It's no longer iron-clad doctrine that certain behaviors, like bed-wetting, masturbation and sexualized play, reliably indicate sex abuse. The slogan of the prosecution and the media was "believe the children"--but what that really meant was don't believe the children if they insist that nothing happened, if they like going to daycare and readily hug their alleged abusers; only believe the children when, after relentless questioning by interviewers, therapists and parents, they agree that something terrible happened and eventually come to believe it, as the Fells Acre children, now young adults, still do. As Dan Finneran, the Amiraults' lawyer until 2000, puts it, the case represents "a closed system of thought: denials, recantations and failure to remember are categorized as manifestations of repression and fear and thus stand as confirmations of actual abuse." If no means yes, and yes means yes, how do you say no?

All these issues featured in the Amirault case. The result was that a respected working-class family who had run a popular daycare center in Malden for twenty years--a place that parents were constantly popping in and out of--were convicted of a total of twenty-six counts of child abuse involving nine children in trials that included accusations of extravagant and flamboyant sadistic behavior: children being anally raped with butcher knives (which left no wounds), tied to trees on the front lawn while other teachers watched, forced to drink urine, thrown about by robots, tortured in a magic room by an evil clown. One child claimed sixteen children had been killed at the center. Obvious questions went unasked: How come no kids who went to Fells Acre in previous years had these alarming experiences? Why was an expert witness permitted to testify about a child-pornography ring when no pornographic photos of the Fells Acre kids were ever found?

Governor Swift made a big show of looking seriously and long at Gerald Amirault's case, but she failed to consider the central question, that of whether he was guilty of any crime. Indeed, Swift made Gerald's refusal to admit guilt and get treatment as a dangerous sexual predator a centerpiece of her decision--but why should an innocent man have to say he's guilty to get out of jail? Gerald has been a model prisoner: He's taken college courses, he has worked, he has a flawless record. He has the total support of his wife and children and a job lined up in anticipation of his release.

Swift claims that her main consideration was whether Amirault's sentence was in line with those of others convicted of similar crimes. She cited the case of Christopher Reardon, a lay Catholic church worker who pled guilty to seventy-five criminal counts of abusing twenty-nine boys last summer and received a forty-to-fifty-year sentence. But the case against Reardon was open and shut; he took photos and videos, and even kept spreadsheets detailing his crimes. The real cases to compare with Amirault's are those of his mother and sister, who were convicted of the same crimes, although slightly fewer of them. Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Violet Amirault received sentences half as long and were released after serving half as many years as Gerald. Does Gerald's being a man have something to do with these disparate outcomes? Absolutely. The women benefited from the leniency still--if fitfully--bestowed by the justice system on women. Moreover, as the case against the Amiraults came to look more and more troubling with hindsight, the original scenario, in which the three were equally involved in molesting children, was replaced by a theory, never put forward during the trials, that Gerald was the ringleader and the women his dupes. How could this be? The evidence against the three was the same.

At her press conference, Governor Swift refused to discuss the case against Gerald and three times declined to respond when asked how he had failed to demonstrate good behavior in prison. The clear implication is that her motives were political: With Massachusetts in an uproar over the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests, to commute Gerald Amirault's sentence would have made her vulnerable in November when, as a not very popular or experienced Republican appointee, she faces an uphill struggle for election. What an irony--the Catholic Church protects genuine child molesters for decades and thereby creates a political situation in which an innocent man is trapped in jail. But Swift's calculation is backfiring. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle in Swift's home county have all editorialized against her decision; polls show wide support for Amirault's release.

Massachusetts--liberal, modern, technocratic Massachusetts--is the only state in which people convicted in the 1980s wave of ritual child abuse cases are still in prison. Bernard Baran, whose case shares many features with that of the Amiraults, with the added strike against him of being homosexual, has been incarcerated for almost half his life. Meanwhile, Scott Harshbarger, the DA who originally prosecuted the Amirault case, is now head of Common Cause. Will it take another 300 years for the state to acknowledge that Salem was not its last miscarriage of justice?

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