THE "FELLS ACRE" RITUAL ABUSE CASE
|"Of all the miscarriages of justice committed during the era of
hysteria over child sex abuse, the Amirault case is by far the worst. The
evidence that convicted him was preposterous. The methods used to browbeat
tiny tots into producing it have been thoroughly discredited. His
innocence has been obvious for years. Yet a succession of prosecutors,
judges and state governors (to say nothing of the media) did their best to
keep him rotting." Margaret Wente, newspaper commentator
A second appeal:
Ms Amirault and LeFave had been free for almost 2 years, after serving 8
years of an 8-20 year sentence. A hearing was held on 1997-MAY-5 in front of
Middlesex Superior Court Judge Robert Barton. Included would have been a motion
by the prosecution to return the women to prison, a two motions by the defense:
one for a new trial and another to keep the women free on bail. Judge Barton
said that the two Amirault women "did not receive a fair trial and justice
was not done...The substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice has been
established...I believe I cannot be fair and impartial considering the three
motions before this court." He then recused himself from the case. A new
judge was sought.
The Amiraults hired a new lawyer, Daniel Williams. He had won an appeal
for Kelly Michaels. (Kelly was convicted in
1988 on 115 counts of sexual assault against 20 of her nursery students -
a case very similar to Fells Acres. Her conviction was overturned in
1996). On 1997-MAY-9, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein
overturned the convictions of Violet and Cheryl, and ordered a new trial.
The ground for the appeal was that the Amiraults received ineffective
assistance of counsel at their first trial. Williams was able to produce
affidavits of the two original trial lawyers who admitted that they had
made a mistake by not objecting to the placement of the child witnesses
during the trial. Judge Borenstein wrote that the Amirault women would
have been granted a new trial 10 years ago if they had effective lawyers
at the time, and that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had not resolved the
issue of effective assistance of counsel."
Middlesex County DA Thomas Reilly has decided to appeal the decision.
He really had no choice. His only other option would be to order a new
trial that he would be almost certain to lose. A great deal of knowledge
is now available about the ease with which false memories can be implanted
in children. Since the original trial, the frequency of vaginal
irregularities in non-abused girls has been determined. At any new trial,
the prosecution would be unable to bring forward any convincing evidence
that any abuse actually happened. And without any proof that criminal
action occurred, the defendants can hardly be found guilty of wrongdoing.
Thus a new trial would almost certainly result in their acquittal.
Violet Amirault died of cancer on 1997-SEP-12 at the age of 74.
2 She was being cared for by her daughter. She was visited by
Wall Street Journal reporter Dorothy Rabinowitz two days before her
death. Rabinowitz said "Surely, this horror she lived through had to
contribute to her death. Everything she had was taken from her." A
parent of a child involved in the case commented: "Her death doesn't
make any difference. She was found guilty of molesting children. There's
no witch hunt. This woman messed with kids' minds."
Reilly's appeal of the new trial order was scheduled to be argued in
early 1997-DEC. But the defense attorney, James Sultan announced that he
had developed new evidence that would provide additional grounds for a new
trial. 3 Maggie Bruck, a Canadian specialist in child
interview techniques, has stated in an affidavit that the interview
methods used in the Amirault case "have a substantial risk of
producing unreliable and false reports from young preschool children.''
Dr. Bruck is the co-author of perhaps the most important recent book on
this topic, published by the American Psychological Association.
4 The high court decided to send the case back to Superior
Court Judge Isaac Borenstein for another hearing during which the new
evidence could be studied.
On 1998-APR-14, Judge Borenstein asked Assistant District Attorney Lynn
Rooney if there was any evidence (physical or behavioral) which indicated
any type of sexual abuse at Fells Acres, and which could be dated to
before 1984-SEP-4, when the first allegations were made. Lynn Rooney was
only able to come up with a medical record which of one girl student. It
showed that she had two minor urinary infections: one sometime in 1982 and
the other in 1984-JUN. That is the sum total of all the physical evidence
that the Middlesex DA office had come up with!
Judge Borenstein ruled in 1998-JUN-18 that Cheryl Amirault should be
granted a new trial because of new scientific findings. He commented: "Overzealous
and inadequately trained investigators, perhaps unaware of the grave
dangers of using improper interviewing and investigative techniques,
questioned these children and their parents in a climate of panic, if not
hysteria, creating a highly prejudicial and irreparable set of mistakes.
These grave errors led to the testimony of the children being forever
tainted." This was the first time that a U.S. trial court has ruled
that new scientific findings about dangerous child interview techniques
constitute new evidence that justifies a new trial. None of the original
child witnesses would be allowed to testify in the new trial, because
their testimony has been "forever tainted" by faulty interview
techniques in the late 1980's. Judge Borenstein commented: "There are
so many examples in the evidence of this case of the improper procedures
that it would take days to go through them."
Again, the state appealed the latest ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court. In
mid-1999-AUG, they overturned Borenstein's ruling. Cheryl prepared to return to
prison. Probably all she would have had to do to gain her freedom would be to
say that she was guilty of the charges. But this would wipe out any future
chance of Gerald Amirault being released. It would also violate the memory of
her mother. And, of course, it would be a lie.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation collected some media editorials
about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision to send Cheryl
Amirault back to prison.
Judge Paul Chernoff herd a motion that Cheryl LeFave's sentence be reduced
to time served. The prosecution did not oppose the motion. He ruled that Ms.
LeFave did not have to return to prison. 5
|Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, 1999-SEP-13, Page 28 M.L.W.
2992: "The Amirault prosecutions took place in an atmosphere of
hysteria. At the time, 'children don't lie' was the battle cry for the
prosecutors and anti-abuse activists. It wasn't until years later that
empirical research became clear and society began to understand how easy
it is to plant ideas in a child's head and how improperly suggestive the
earlier investigative tactics had been...In six different decisions in
the Amirault cases, the SJC has seemed determined to defend the
prosecutors and insist that these defendants belong behind bars.
Virtually scoffing at any possibility that an injustice may have been
done, the justices have been unyielding in their refusal to let a new
trial take place to present scientific testimony that wasn't
well-developed at the time of the original trials."|
|Ed Hayward, Boston Herald, 1999-SEP-29: "In the past, the
roadblock to LeFave's release has been the requirement she admit guilt,
which she refuses to do. LeFave and her mother and her brother, Gerald 'Tooky'
Amirault, have maintained their innocence since the case made national
headlines in 1985 amid a series of alleged day care sex abuse cases."|
|Sacha Pfeiffer, Boston Globe, 1999-AUG-21: " 'We will
never know what happened at Fells Acres, just like the communities that
suffered through the other multiple abuse cases...will never know with
certainty if the defendants were guilty or innocent,' said Boston lawyer
Martin Weinberg, director of the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers. 'But in a democracy, unlike in an accusatory system,
when there's uncertainty citizens remain free. It's the fundamental
notion of our nation's heritage, and I think that's been challenged in
|Editorial, Christian Science Monitor, 1999-AUG-23: "The
supreme judicial court of Massachusetts last week could have ended
perhaps the commonwealth's worst miscarriage of justice since the Sacco
and Vanzetti trial of the 1920s. Sadly, it did not."|
|Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal, 1999-AUG-24: "The
opinion is a telling document, as much for what the judges left out as
for what they put in. Indeed, a reader who came to it knowing nothing
about this prosecution would have been hard put to find in this decision
any of the reasons this case had won such notoriety; nothing of the
frenzied interrogations, the mad pleadings of interviewers
exhorting children to tell, of the process by which small children were
schooled in details of torments and sexual assaults supposedly inflicted
on them in secret rooms-matters, the record of these interviews reveals,
that the children clearly knew nothing about.|
Jack Sullivan, Boston Herald, 1999-AUG-25: "[T]hese women did not
receive a fair trial." |
Tom Kirchofer, Associated Press Newswires, 1999-AUG-19: "We're
talking about 15 years for a sentence I intended to be less than six.
That's kooky," said Sullivan [Judge John Paul Sullivan who sentenced the
Amiraults to eight to 20 years in jail with the understanding they would
likely be paroled in less than six years."|
|Jack Sullivan, Boston Herald, 1999-AUG-25: "'The court is
left with an abiding conviction that justice was not done,' Borenstein
[the second judge to order a new trial] said at the time." |
Sacha Pfeiffer, Boston Globe, 1999-AUG-21: "'One thing that is
absolutely clear is that this outcome had nothing to do with the
Amiraults,' said Thomas G. Gutheil, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard
Medical School who has testified in numerous abuse cases. 'It can only
be about the political and judicial system here.'"|
Developments during the year 2000:
|2000-APR-18: Tied in with the fate of Cheryl is that of Gerald Amirault. His lawyer, Daniel
Williams, had felt that if the 1998-JUN ruling by Judge Borenstein held, then Gerald
Amirault might have been able to try a similar appeal. On 2000-APR-18, Gerald's
lawyers asked Governor Paul Cellucci to reduce his 30 to 40 year sentence
to time served (14 years). |
|2000-JUL-20: Anne Abernathy of Shawnee OK committed
suicide a few hours after her mother died of natural causes.
Before she died, Anne changed her will to cut twelve individuals --
mostly relatives -- out of her will. She directed that her estate be
equally split between two families that she had never met: The Miami
FL relatives of Elian Gonzalez and the Amiraults. On 2001-JAN-3, a judge decided to
not allow her will to be entered into probate. District Judge Glenn
Dale Carter wrote that she suffered psychotic persecutorial delusions
at the time that she wrote the new will. "...she had a
delusion that she was the subject of a government conspiracy and the
court found that she thought the Gonzalezes and Amiraults were also
victims of the government conspiracy and therefore left her estate to
those two families." She also thought that Satanists and
Nazis were out to get her. The Gonzalezes and Amiraults appealed the
ruling to the state Supreme|
Court in 2001-FEB. In a surprise twist, a settlement was reached in
2001-APR between the family of Anne Katherine Abernathy, the
Gonzalezes and the Amirault family. All will share in the $500,000
- Margaret Wente, "A darkness lifted at last," The Globe and Mail,
Toronto, ON, 2003-OCT-18.
- John Ellement and William F. Doherty, "Violet Amirault, center of child rape
case, dies at 74", Boston Globe, 1997-SEP-13, Page A01
- William F. Doherty, Article, Boston Globe, 1997-NOV-30, Page B03
- S.J. Ceci & M. Bruck, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of
Children's Testimony", American Psychological Association, Washington DC (1995)
this book safely from the online bookstore Amazon.com
- Robin Estrin, "Judge frees convicted child abuser,"
Associated Press, at: http://www.truthinjustice.org/lafave.htm
Copyright 1997 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2003-OCT-21
Author: B.A. Robinson