I know that at this moment, many Americans are deeply upset over Scott Brown's election to the Massachusetts Senate. A Republican in that swing state will almost definitely spell the end of the new health care plan that could - if properly administered - transform U.S. health care from the "privilege" it is today to the basic human right it should be. This is tragic.
However, Pollyanna that I am, I'm going to point out a couple of things about the Democratic contender, Martha Coakley, that aren't so great:
1. She didn't try hard enough. Wasn't she on vacation for part of her campaign?
2. Coakley has a very mixed track record when it comes to common sense, and her handling of the Amirault case is as good (er, bad) an example as any.
Let me take you back to 1985. Almost exactly 25 years ago, Violet Amirault and her two children, 31-year-old Gerald and 28-year-old Cheryl, were charged with abusing and molesting children in the daycare run by Violet in Malden, Massachusetts.
Violet Amirault opened Fells Acre Daycare as a single parent and had been running it since the mid-1960s without any complaints. In fact, it was considered one of the best daycares in the community, and there was always a waiting list.
Then, in the autumn of 1984, the family of a 4-year-old who attended the daycare considered the boy's sex play with his cousin to be a troubling sign. They questioned him about bad touching by adults. He said that Gerald Amirault (known as "Tooky") had removed his pants one day. This was true; Gerald helped the boy change his clothes after he wet himself on one occasion.
Somehow, this incident mushroomed into a vast array of bizarre accusations. On September 12, 1984, more than a hundred parents attended a meeting to discuss the issue with police. Gerald had just been arrested, two days before the birth of his third child, and police were interviewing all of the daycare's 70 or so children with the help of a pediatric nurse named Susan J. Kelly. Parents were encouraged to question their kids at home, as well. Soon, they were eliciting stories of secret rooms, clowns, sodomy with a butcher knife, a murdered baby, biting robots, witch and "bad lobster" costumes, and something about an elephant. One child said, "Tooky was sorry for chopping me into little pieces." Another said that 16 fellow preschoolers had died.
Jurors at Gerald's trial didn't hear about clowns and monsters, but they did hear about secret rooms where child pornography was produced. These rooms were never located. At Violet and Cheryl's trial, the allegations were more outlandish: a child lashed nude to a tree on a busy street, robots, butcher knives, etc. The prosecutors made an unusual decision to face the child witnesses directly toward the jury rather than the defendants, ostensibly for the children's peace of mind.
There was no physical evidence in the case. The prosecution rested solely on interviews of the children. Video recordings of these sessions reveal that if the kids denied being abused, Kelly prodded until they disclosed something - anything. Officer John Rivers referred to the process as "getting blood from a stone".
No one had ever heard screams of terror coming from the daycare, nor seen any naked children tied to trees. No Malden toddlers had mentioned Satan at the dinner table until after Gerald Amirault was arrested.
Nonetheless, Gerald Amirault was convicted of raping and abusing 9 children, and was sentenced to 30-40 years in prison. His mother and sister each received sentences of 8-20 years for raping and abusing four children. The women's lighter sentences were clear indicators that the prosecution and jury considered Gerald to be the head of the family's Satanic Robot Clown cult.
Violet's and Cheryl's convictions were overturned in 1995, when a judge ruled that they had been denied their Constitutional right to face their accusers in court. Then the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the overturned convictions, and the Honorable Isaac Borenstein granted motions for separate trials. However, he ultimately ruled that "grave errors" in the original questioning of the children had irrevocably tainting their testimony, rendering it inadmissible as evidence. He believed the case bore the earmarks of ritual abuse hysteria, noting that none of the kids showed signs of abuse prior to the arrests of the Amiraults.
In 1997, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Violet and Cheryl would be reincarcerated until their new trials. Violet passed away during this time, having spent close to a decade of her golden years in prison.
Here's where Ms. Coakley enters the picture. In October 1999, as the Middlesex district attorney, Coakley struck a deal with Cheryl Amirault: In exchange for being released, Cheryl would receive 10 years probation - as long as she gave no TV interviews and had no unsupervised contact with children.
For Coakley, this deal wasn't about getting some leniency for a woman almost universally considered an innocent victim of "Satanic panic". No, for her it was about keeping Gerald Amirault in prison. Early in negotations, she demanded that the long-serving Amirault family attorney, James Sultan, pledge to drop Gerald as a client in return for Cheryl's release. Sultan refused.
In July 2001, the parole board unanimously recommended that Gerald's sentence be commuted. The final decision would be up to Governor Jane Swift.
Coakley, acting as advocate for the victims and their families, began lobbying Swift on their behalf.
While it's commendable for Coakley to offer assistance to victims of child abuse, this particular case wasn't a good place to start. Either she isn't well-acquainted with the facts of the case, or she's harebrained enough to believe that a Satanic Robot Clown cult operated a Hell Hostel for toddlers in plain view of a small town's residents for nearly 20 years.
There is a third, even less appetizing possibility: That Martha Coakley politically exploited the Amirault case to make herself appear very tough on crimes against children. Again, being a victims' advocate is commendable - but this wasn't the right place to start. The Fells Acre case is full of victims: the Amiraults, the parents who believe their children were horrifically abused in a safe place, and the children who were persuaded of the same thing by suggestive questioning. Some of them bear psychic scars to this day. Victim Phaedra Hopkins and her family spoke out against the proposed commutation of Amirault's sentence, as did Jennifer Bennett. She says she and the other kids were telling the truth; the Amirault family ruined her life. Brian Martinello and his mom, Barbara Standke, also spoke out. Brian had scratches or sores on his genitalia when he went to Fells Acres at age 4. He and his mother remain convinced that this was the result of sexual abuse.
Governor Swift rejected the parole board's recommendation in 2002. Gerald Amirault spent another year and a half in prison before being released on parole, a registered sex offender and convicted child abuser for the rest of his life.
Thanks, Ms. Coakley.
Notes on Sources:
Most of the information in this article comes from John Demo's excellent book The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Modern World (Viking, 2008), Dorothy Rabinowitz's January 14, 2009 Wall Street Journal piece ("Martha Coakley's Convictions"), and news articles on the Fells Acre case compiled online by Hugo S. Cunningham. All online materials were retrieved January 20, 2010.
To date, a definitive account of the case has yet to be written.