Governor Charlie Baker withdrew pardon requests on Wednesday for Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, siblings convicted nearly 40 years ago of sexually abusing children at the family-owned Fells Acres Day School, in a sharp pivot that has deepened wounds on both sides of the contentious case.
The Governor’s Council was set to vote on the pardon request Wednesday, after holding a six-hour hearing the day before, when Baker withdrew his recommendation, citing an apparent lack of support from the panel.
“After they all go through this, he just changes his mind and now everyone’s back to zero,” said Maggie Bruck, a child psychologist who has closely followed the Fells Acres case since the 1980s, and attended Tuesday’s hearing in support of the Amiraults. Bruck called Baker’s last-minute reversal “really disgusting.”
“He should have sat down and thought about, if this were going to be done, how it would be done properly,” she said. “But this was obviously improper, for everybody involved.”
Tuesday’s tense Governor’s Council hearing was supposed to help the eight-member panel decide whether to approve Baker’s pardon recommendations for the siblings, a decision that can tip on factors including one’s behavior in the years since their convictions or the reason for seeking it. But observers on both sides said the meeting quickly devolved into an emotional back-and-forth, forcing families to relive decades-old trauma and dredging up a central issue of the original case: how prosecutors elicit witness testimony on sexual assault and abuse from young children.
Jenn Bennett, who testified in the mid-1980s that Amirault sexually abused her and has repeatedly stood by her testimony, said Baker’s decision to withdraw the pardons “was the right thing that should have been done.”
“It was relief, it was excitement,” Bennett said. “There is validation, not just validation for me but for everybody. I was there, I know the truth. I’ve always said the truth. A pardon is for forgiveness. There is no forgiveness” for what happened, she said.
Baker recommended the pardon in his final months in office against the recommendation of his Advisory Board of Pardons, saying he had “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength” of Amirault and LeFave’s convictions.
But after pushback from some councilors, and uproar from survivors and child welfare advocates, the governor determined that “there are not sufficient votes from the Governor’s Council to support a pardon for the Amiraults,” according to a statement from Terry MacCormack, a Baker spokesperson.
“Therefore, the Governor is withdrawing his pardon petition,” he said.
James Sultan, an attorney for Amirault and LeFave, said in a statement Wednesday that the siblings were “extremely disappointed” with Baker’s decision.
“They wanted the Governor’s Council to vote,” he said. “They have suffered enough. They should be pardoned. . . . Sadly, the rug has been pulled out from under them one final time. How sad, and how cruel.”
If the matter had been brought to a vote, however, it appears the council would have rejected the pardon request. Several council members have pointed out that the current Board of Pardons does not support clemency for either sibling.
Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney said Wednesday that she was disappointed to see the request withdrawn because she wanted to vote “no” loudly.
“This person doesn’t deserve a pardon. There are people that he ruined their lives forever,” Devaney said about Amirault’s case. “The child victims . . . are never forgotten. They live a life sentence. But [Amirault] is home, he can travel, he takes care of his grandchildren, and he has a pretty good life.”
The withdrawal marks a rare clash between Baker and the council, which quickly greenlit many of the 15 other pardon recommendations he made in recent weeks. One of Baker’s few setbacks in the council came last year, when the panel narrowly voted down one of his picks for the Parole Board. But in nearly eight years, the panel has yet to reject any of the nearly 250 judges Baker has nominated — though he did withdraw two judicial nominations during his tenure.
In the days ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Baker repeatedly insisted that wiping away the siblings’ convictions was the right move, saying as recently as Tuesday that he read several court decisions, including a 1998 ruling issued by Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein that vacated LeFave’s conviction. (That decision was overturned, though LeFave received a lesser sentence and was released in 1999 after serving eight years in prison). In his ruling, Borenstein said LeFave’s alleged victims were manipulated by “overzealous” investigators who succumbed to a “climate of panic, if not hysteria.”
“It’s a question, from my point of view, about whether or not the process that everyone’s entitled to here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was properly applied or not. That’s the issue,” Baker told reporters Tuesday. Amirault was released on parole in 2004 after he spent 18 years in prison.
Questions about testimony introduced in the case were raised as early as the 1990s, when the Globe reviewed videotapes and transcripts of interviews conducted with several of the children, most ages 2 to 5, who accused Amirault and LeFave in the 1980s. At the time, the Globe found “many instances of the children denying abuse only to have the interviewer plead and cajole, at times offering gifts . . . for the ‘correct’ answer.”
While some defense attorneys and child psychologists have accused prosecutors of suggestive questioning that could lead young children to fabricate or exaggerate stories of abuse, other psychiatrists, lawyers, and child welfare advocates insist that, as some of the most vulnerable survivors of sexual abuse, every effort must be made to listen to children when they report an act of harm.
Even so, experts acknowledge that interviewers today are careful to avoid the kind of interrogation that could call the credibility of a case into question.
“Now, young children are interviewed very carefully by trained professionals under observation,” said Carmen Durso, a sex abuse lawyer who represented several of the survivors of assault by priests in the Catholic Church.
Durso said he does not believe prosecutors in the Fells Acres case acted improperly, but said today children are almost always interviewed by a specialist who intentionally avoids what he called “suggestive questioning.”
“The people who are involved in these interviews do not ever try to get the child to say a particular thing,” he said. “They want the child to say only whatever there is to be heard.”
Jacquelyn Lamont, a forensic interviewer with the Suffolk District Attorney’s Child Protection Unit, declined to comment on the specifics of the Fells Acres case but said the 1980s were a time when “well-meaning people were trying to make kids comfortable doing things that we would not do today,” including offering children rewards or prodding them toward a certain answer.
“It is true that a young child is more susceptible to an untrained person suggesting an idea to them,” she said. “But kids can be so reliable with the proper techniques.”
The radical evolution of child interview techniques since the 1980s has cast doubt on the case’s credibility over the years. But as the parent of one survivor noted, prosecutors’ arguments have always held up in court.
“Every argument . . . has already been raised and addressed countless times,” Brenda Hurley McCarthy, whose daughter was a victim of abuse, said Tuesday. “We believed our children, and so did the courts.”
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