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A just ending to the Fells Acres case

If the Governor’s Council approves a pardon for the siblings convicted of child abuse in the notorious 1980s day care case, it mustn’t be seen as an exoneration.

Cheryl LeFave, left, and Violet Amirault leave Middlesex Superior Court in 1987 after both being sentenced to 20 years in prison.Paul Benoit/Globe staff

Editor’s note: After the publication of this editorial, Governor Charlie Baker’s office announced it had withdrawn its pardon recommendations for Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave.

If the Governor’s Council votes to pardon Gerald Amirault and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave — a decision that could come as soon as Wednesday — it has a responsibility to sexual abuse victims to make sure the action is not misinterpreted. Pardoning the Amiraults is not — must not be — equivalent to exonerating them of the notorious sexual assaults for which they were convicted almost four decades ago.

The two siblings and their mother, Violet Amirault, were found guilty of 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 view lame-duck Governor Charlie Baker’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.

Because of the outrageous nature of the crimes, and the way in which debates over the Amiraults’ guilt have become highly politicized over the years, the Fells Acres case has generated decades of headlines and controversy. In evaluating the pardon request, the task for governor’s councilors is to tune all that out and focus solely on whether a pardon would be an act of justice at this time.


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 to uphold. Although the Amiraults themselves have always proclaimed their innocence, the justification for any pardon should be explicitly limited to the concerns about the 1986 and 1987 trials.


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 fear, quite reasonably, that because the Amiraults have always proclaimed their innocence, any pardon will be 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 deter 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 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. It’s up to the officials who decide pardons — in this case the elected, eight-member Governor’s Council — to explain their actions. 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. It’s unfortunate that option is not before the council, because it still seems like the least bad resolution.

The question before councilors, though, is whether to grant a full pardon to the Amiraults, wiping clean their records and taking them off the sex offender registry. Some of the councilors appeared torn during Tuesday’s hearing. One of them, Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney of Watertown, disclosed that she had a friend whose child was abused at the day care center. And the fact that Baker and his administration have said so little to explain their recommendation has not exactly bolstered confidence in his request (the governor declined to talk to the Globe about the pardon). Baker’s handling of this pardon, in particular the failure to communicate with the victims, is a blot on his last days in office.


Still, 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 make a pardon a legitimate choice — if the Governor’s Council makes clear it is acting solely to uphold the integrity of the justice system and does not impugn the victims who have already endured too much.

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