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The Fells Acres saga continues

The criminal trials in which Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Gerald Amirault were convicted of raping children would not pass muster in a courtroom today.

In 2004, The Amirault family (left to right) Gerrilyn, Patti, Gerald, and Patrick speak during a press conference after Gerald Amirault was released from jail.David Kamerman/Globe staff

On Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker withdrew his pardon recommendations for Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, the siblings convicted in high-profile trials in the 1980s of child abuse at a day care run by the family. His decision came the morning after the Governor’s Council held a contentious hearing on the matter — and after it was made clear that there weren’t enough votes on the council to approve the pardons.

Along with their mother, Violet Amirault, Gerald and Cheryl were found guilty on multiple counts of indecent assault and of raping children under their care at the Fells Acres Day Care Center. Those victims have never wavered, never recanted. And some of them viewed the lame-duck governor’s recommendation to pardon the Amiraults as a slap in the face, made worse by his inexplicable and insensitive decision not to inform them ahead of time.


This is yet another unsatisfying twist in what has always been a deeply troubled case because of the outdated methods used by prosecutors at the time to elicit testimony from the victims. A pardon, if it had been based solely on those concerns, would have been justified, but councilors appeared to be worried that such a move inevitably would have been construed as exonerating the Amiraults.

Baker himself did not say he believed that Cheryl, now 64, and Gerald, now 68, were innocent (Violet died in 1997). Instead, he said he had “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions.” That may seem like a too-cute distinction, but it’s a critical one: Although the Amiraults themselves have always proclaimed their innocence, the justification for a pardon is limited to the concerns about the 1986 and 1987 trials, which have come to be viewed in a different light given the evolving standards for investigating child sexual abuse cases.


The Middlesex County prosecutors who charged the Amiraults were among the first to take child abuse with the seriousness it deserves — meaning they relied on investigatory techniques that were still in their infancy. James Sultan, the defense lawyer representing the Amiraults, referred to the period as the “Dark Ages back in the 1980s” before investigators knew “how to properly question young children in a non-suggestive, non-coercive fashion.” Subsequent experience has raised doubts about some of the methods authorities used at the time, which included leading interviews with child victims. While they stand by the verdict, and there is no hint of prosecutorial misconduct in this case — still less a “witch hunt” mentality — even the prosecutors concede that such techniques are outdated.

Opponents of a pardon had feared, quite reasonably, that because the Amiraults have always proclaimed their innocence, any pardon would have been viewed as an official acceptance of their version of events, in which they were loving caregivers who were simply caught up in a hysterical moral panic. By implicitly calling the victims liars, a pardon on those grounds could have deterred victims in other cases from coming forward — “casting a pall over other children who will not be believed,” as Laurence Hardoon, the lead prosecutor in the case, said on Tuesday.

Sometimes a pardon does, indeed, serve as a de facto exoneration. But not always. It can also give a fresh start to convicts who have turned their life around. And it can also be a safety valve for cases such as the Amirault convictions in which legitimate doubts about the strength of the evidence presented at trial emerge only years later. In this case, whatever one thinks about the the Amiraults’ actual guilt or innocence, the trials would not pass muster in a courtroom today.


Cheryl Amirault LeFave served eight years in prison. Gerald Amirault served 18, and is still on parole. In 2001, this editorial page argued that authorities should commute Gerald Amirault’s sentence, but withhold a full pardon, in light of the concerns about the evidence at the trial. That would have certainly been the least bad outcome in this case, and it’s unfortunate that choice was not available to councilors.

Ultimately, the failure to approve the pardons falls on Baker, who did so little to explain or defend his recommendation to both the Governor’s Council and the public. (The governor also declined to talk to the Globe about the pardon request.) Baker’s handling of this pardon, and in particular the failure to communicate with the victims, is a blot on his last days in office.

Still, the fact remains the Amiraults’ trials were tainted — not because of malice or misconduct on anyone’s part, but simply because of the times in which they occurred. That does not mean they were innocent, but it does mean that the state has unfinished business to address those shortcomings. Pardons could still be a legitimate choice, should the next governor, Maura Healey, choose to go down that road. But what she and the Governor’s Council must make clear if this matter is ever back on the table is that clemency in this case is the pardons are not about guilt or innocence, but rather a step to uphold the integrity of the justice system.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.