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Emotional testimony expected about Baker pardons in child sex abuse case

Gerald "Tookie" Amirault interviewed by the press at the Bay State Correctional Center in 2000. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
Gerald "Tookie" Amirault interviewed by the press at the Bay State Correctional Center in 2000. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

A high-profile Massachusetts criminal case dating back almost 40 years will likely reignite controversy Tuesday as elected officials weigh pardons for siblings convicted of child sex abuse at a Malden day care.

Doubts and questions about how investigators worked have long plagued the case. And now, members of the state's Governor's Council are scheduled to hear testimony on pardons recommended for Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave. The brother and sister were tried and convicted in the late 1980s, and both have maintained their innocence.

Tuesday's hearing is expected to feature emotional testimony, including from Jenn Bennett, who testified during Gerald Amirault's trial that he repeatedly raped her when she was a toddler at the day care center. She called Gov. Charlie Baker's recommendations for pardons a "slap in the face to all the survivors."

"Was Baker there during our court cases?" Bennett, now 44, asked. "Was he there when I was raped and molested? They didn't deal with my night terrors then or my fear now. I still don't leave my house alone because I'm afraid."

Gov. Charlie Baker recommended the pardons in November, saying he has "grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions."

Gerald Amirault was convicted in 1986 of molesting eight children at his family's day care, the Fells Acres Day School in Malden. In a separate trial, Cheryl Amirault LeFave and their mother, Violet Amirault, were convicted of abusing four children. All three Amiraults served prison time. Violet Amirault died in 1997.

Since the convictions, many techniques investigators used to question the young accusers fell under scrutiny and were discredited. For example, the interviewers offered children gifts for "correct" answers confirming abuse took place.

The Amiraults' attorney, James Sultan, noted how past court decisions scrutinized the investigation. In particular, he cited Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein's 1998 ruling that Amirault LeFave’s alleged victims were manipulated by “overzealous” investigators.

Sultan said the Amiraults were prosecuted amid an "atmosphere of fear and anger, bordering on hysteria," did not receive fair trials and "went to prison for crimes they did not commit."

"We know now, based on empirical scientific research, that the highly suggestive, coercive, and improper techniques employed by well-meaning investigators and parents to question young children nearly 40 years ago at the outset of this case served to shape and permanently implant their horrific accounts of abuse, rendering their testimony wholly and irreparably unreliable," Sultan said in a statement. 

Upon hearing about Baker's recommendations, Bennett said she called the governor's office repeatedly but hasn't heard back. 

"What I'm upset about the most is that victims were not notified," Bennett said. "And no pardon should be given. He needs to remain a level three sex offender."

Also expected to speak before the Governor's Council Tuesday is Barbara May, whose son testified during Amirault's 1986 trial. May said she is incensed that the families involved were not told about the potential pardons.

"I'm appalled that we weren't notified," May said. "I wish I never allowed my son to testify back then. For what? For them to now say the kids were liars?"

The late Barbara Anderson, of Citizens for Limited Taxation, was among those who challenged the Amiraults' convictions. In her final newspaper column, Anderson wrote that Baker "promised my friend Gerald Amirault and his family that getting Gerald off parole and his ankle bracelet would be a first order of business."

Former Middlesex County District Attorney Tom Reilly, whose office prosecuted the case, also said he supports pardoning the Amiraults.

“While I stand behind the decisions made at the time by the prosecutors, judge and jury, I believe the governor’s decision is a fitting end to a very troubled case," Reilly said.

Braced for emotional testimonials, Governor's Councilor Terrence Kennedy said he intends to give everyone who wants to speak Tuesday a chance to do so.

Kennedy asked attorneys for the Amiraults that the siblings not attend Tuesday's hearing.

"They're going to say they should be pardoned because it didn't happen. That's what they've been saying for 38 years," Kennedy said. "The only purpose of bringing them in would be to subject them to some type of cross-examination, and that's not what the Governor's Council is there for."

"I also believe that if they [the Amiraults] were there, frankly, it would raise the tension level," he added.

Kennedy said the Governor's Council will review the merits of the pardon recommendations, well aware the case has been hotly debated for decades.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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