Roman Polanski may not be alone in facing new scrutiny for an old sex crime, though in Massachusetts it's the actions of a former prosecutor, not a perpetrator, that are in question. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the front-runner in the campaign to fill the U.S. Senate seat held for 46 years by Ted Kennedy. Coakley rose in politics via the Middlesex District Attorney's office, which was the unrelenting engine behind the Fells Acres Day Care prosecution, perhaps the most notorious among the wave of child sex abuse cases that swept the nation in the 1980s.
Coakley did not prosecute the case, which was already under way when she joined the office as an assistant district attorney in 1986. But years later, after the day-care abuse hysteria had subsided and she had won the office's top job, she worked to keep the convicted "ringleader," Gerald Amirault, behind bars despite widespread doubts that a crime had been committed.
Unlike Polanski's guilt, which was convincing enough in the 1970s and seems at least as compelling now, the convictions won by the Middlesex DA in the Fells Acres case have not borne up well. By today's standards, the prosecution of the Amirault family, who owned and operated the day-care center in Malden, Mass., looks like a master class in battling witchcraft. After an initial allegation surfaced under dubious circumstances, parents were summoned by local police and encouraged to grill their young children, predominantly ages 3 to 5. In the scattershot search for evidence, which the children ultimately produced by the truckload, hysteria reigned. Parents shared their fears along with their children's sometimes fantastical revelations. A pediatric nurse and other "experts" then followed up, posing leading, even badgering, questions to the children to produce a portrait of almost supernatural predation.
Children claimed to have been raped by knives that left no wounds. They said they had been tied to a tree on the day-care grounds. They said they had been molested by a man—Gerald Amirault—in a clown costume and spoke of a magic room and a secret room. No teacher, parent or other adult witnessed any of it—despite their regular proximity to the Amiraults and the exceedingly baroque, time-consuming nature of the alleged abuse. Physical evidence was remarkably scant.
The allegations were similar to those produced in other day-care cases, from New Jersey to California, in which charges were ultimately dismissed. Research by Cornell professor Stephen Ceci and others has established that children can be highly susceptible to ideas introduced by adults, and can shape their recollections to suit a grown-up's narrative. (See this ABC News video). As former Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon wrote in The Boston Globe, Gerald Amirault's "conviction rested largely on the constitutionally defective testimony of the young children."
The fact that the Fells Acres case took place in suburban Boston makes it all the more vexing. While Middlesex prosecutors were pursuing the Amiraults for spectacular assaults involving dozens of victims, Catholic priests in the area were quietly raping local children one by one, without the benefit of magic rooms or clown costumes. Just two years after the Fells Acres prosecution concluded, one of the prosecutors, Laurence Hardoon, opted not to prosecute a priest, Rev. Paul Tivnan, who had molested a young boy for years. Hardoon later explained that it seemed appropriate to provide the priest with treatment, not jail time. In response to a second molestation allegation against Tivnan, church records indicated that Tivnan said he "didn't realize it was so harmful," according to the MetroWest Daily News, a local paper. The Amiraults, by contrast, were each sentenced to grinding prison terms, with Gerald getting the most—30 to 40 years. All three Amiraults adamantly insisted that the charges were baseless and refused to bargain with prosecutors; they paid for their defiance with longer sentences.
As the '80s subsided and similar cases around the country collapsed, views of the Fells Acres prosecution began shifting, too. By 1999, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly was calling it a "travesty of justice". In 2001, in a 5–0 vote, the Massachusetts Parole Board recommended that Gerald Amirault's sentence be commuted to time served, pointing out that it was "clearly a matter of public knowledge that, at the minimum, real and substantial doubt exists" about Amirault's conviction.
Yet as Middlesex DA, Martha Coakley not only refused to revisit the case, she opposed the parole board's recommendation, a position that carried weight since her office had initiated the prosecution. Amirault spent another three years in jail. Coakley had previously allowed Gerald's sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, to be released from prison on the curious condition that she not submit to television or film interviews. According to The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz, who championed the Amiraults' case in a series of articles and in a book, Coakley also requested that the Amiraults' attorney, James Sultan, who was negotiating Cheryl's release, stop representing Gerald, which would have further crippled Gerald's appeals for freedom.
This is old news. But it's hardly less troubling for the passage of time. And given Coakley's political ambitions, it still resonates. When I went online to see if anyone was making Fells Acres an issue in the Senate race, I quickly stumbled upon a heated discussion on a Democratic blog—Blue Mass. Group. "I've not made up my mind on Coakley's specific record in this case," said Blue Mass. Group co-editor Charley Blandy in an Oct. 8 post. "But I do think that the bill for overzealous prosecution comes due eventually, and you don't just keep promoting people upward if you don't trust their judgment."
Coakley's political judgment is not in question. The debate on Blue Mass Group is whether as Middlesex DA she served justice or merely served her office and herself. Coakley issued a statement to the group saying she did the right thing in opposing Amirault's freedom and she stands by her decision. On a "Legacy of Excellence" page on his office website, however, the current DA, Gerry Leone, conspicuously fails to include erstwhile monster Gerald Amirault among the "notorious" criminals proudly prosecuted by the office. Admitting the possibility of error, of course, would suggest not only that the Amiraults may have been victims, but that the Fells Acres children were victims of the prosecution, as well. The political cost would be unbearable.
Gerald Amirault was freed in 2004, after spending 18 years in jail, insisting on his innocence throughout. His sister is free. His mother is dead. The child victims are grown (though some are reportedly still traumatized by the experience). It's all over now, in the past. As one commenter on the Blue Mass Group blog wrote, "I sincerely doubt that many votes will turn" on the Fells Acres case. Point taken. Convicted child molesters are an especially unsympathetic cause. But that's why it was heartening to see a handful of bloggers—with or without political axes to grind—refusing to leave well enough alone.