Governor Charlie Baker on Friday approved a commutation request of a man serving a life sentence for murder and announced pardons for six people, including Gerald Amirault and his sister, who were convicted nearly 40 years ago in the Fells Acres child sexual abuse case that was long dogged by doubts about investigators’ tactics.
Baker said Friday that he is recommending pardons for Amirault and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, because he had “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength” of their convictions in the mid-1980s.
Baker also recommended that the first-degree murder sentence of Ramadan Shabazz be commuted to second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole. Shabazz, 72, has served more than 50 years in prison for the murders of Harry Jeffreys and Calvin Thorn, and has been what Baker called a “remarkable example of self-development for other incarcerated individuals.”
It’s the third clemency petition Baker has approved this year for a person serving a life sentence for murder. A commutation reduces an inmate’s sentence, paving the way for immediate release or parole eligibility, while a pardon erases a conviction.
A second-term Republican, Baker did not seek reelection and is slated to leave office in January.
Gerald Amirault, 68, who was paroled in 2004, spent 18 years in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting nine children at his family’s day-care center, the Fells Acres Day School in Malden. His sister, LeFave, 65, was released in 1999.
Their mother, Violet Amirault, was also convicted in the case and served eight years in prison. She died of cancer in 1997 less than one year after being freed on bail while awaiting a new trial.
Gerald Amirault has long maintained his innocence, and the case fell under scrutiny after some of the methods investigators used to obtain child witness testimony were discredited and abandoned. A Globe story about the controversy from 1995 noted that videotapes and transcripts of interviews conducted with the children included several instances of children denying abuse only to have the interviewer plead and cajole, at times offering gifts, for the “correct” answer.
James L. Sultan, the Amiraults’ attorney, said in a statement Friday that his clients did not receive a fair trial and served time for “crimes they did not commit.” He said neither would comment while the pardon recommendations are pending before the Governor’s Council.
“I want us all to be free of the stigma of this case. My wife and children have suffered right along with me,” Gerald Amirault wrote in a letter to Baker in February, adding that he had told two of his oldest grandchildren about his conviction because “many colleges and books reference my case, and we did not want to have them find out about it from anyone but us.”
The state Board of Pardons had recommended in 2001 that Gerald Amirault’s 40-year prison sentence be commuted, but then-acting governor Jane Swift rejected the recommendation. He was later paroled.
“The investigations and prosecutions of the Amiraults in the 1980s took place without the benefit of scientific studies that have in the intervening years led to widespread adoption of investigative protocols designed to protect objectivity and reliability in the investigation of child sex-abuse cases,” Baker said in a statement Friday. Given the “absence of these protections,” he said, the Amiraults “ought to be pardoned.”
Former Massachusetts attorney general Thomas F. Reilly, a Democrat who successfully fought off legal challenges to Gerald Amirault‘s conviction when he was Middlesex County district attorney, said in a statement released by Baker’s office Friday that while he stood by the decisions “made at the time,” the pardons mark “a fitting end to a very troubled case.”
Efforts to reach those in the Fells Acres case who said they were victims, or their relatives, were not successful Friday.
Baker’s recommendations now go to the Governor’s Council, an elected body that vets judicial nominations, for approval.
A member of the council, Robert Jubinville, a Milton Democrat, said he supports the pardons and believes “most of [the council] feels the same way I do.”
“I’m a big fan of pardons under the right circumstances and this one is right at the top of the list,” Jubinville said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the governor to have the courage to end this tragedy.”
In the murder case, Shabazz was sentenced to death in 1972, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1976. He and a codefendant shot Jeffreys and Thorn, who were working at the Freedom Foods grocery store in Dorchester, and stole upward of $19,000 from Thorn’s car, according to Baker’s office.
While his crime was “horrific,” Baker said, Shabazz has “not only taken full responsibility for his actions but has also dedicated his life in prison to bettering himself and serving as a mentor to others in prison.” He worked as a GED tutor and a drug counselor, and obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees through Boston University’s prison education program, Baker’s office said.
Friday’s announcement marked the third batch of pardons Baker has approved this year. In January, he also moved to commute life sentences for two men convicted of murder in 1987 and 1994, respectively, in what attorneys called a “groundbreaking” act of mercy.
On Friday, he recommended pardons for four others who had been convicted of larceny or assault charges decades ago, and were seeking pardons in order to seek, or reapply for, a gun permit.
- Brian Morin, who was convicted of larceny from a person and assault and battery in 1980, stemming from incidents when he was a teenager.
- Camille Joseph Chaisson, who was convicted of charges including larceny and attempted larceny in 1966 and two counts of larceny and one count of breaking and entering at night with the intent to commit a felony later that year. The earlier charges involved stealing tools, a battery, and candy from an auto club.
- Michael Biagini, who was convicted of three counts of assault and battery and one count of being a minor in possession of alcohol in the 1960s and 1970s. Biagini, who has served as a local board of health member and water commissioner, told officials the assault charge stemmed from a “tussle over a young lady.
- Robert Busa, who as a minor was found delinquent of breaking and entering and larceny in 1970 and delinquent of a property violation later that year, the latter of which involved him throwing rocks at the windows of an abandoned school after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.