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Much of this distrust stems from the Fells Acres ritual abuse case, where three totally innocent people drew horrendous (20- and 40-year) prison terms on nothing more than the testimony of toddlers who were repeatedly and coercively interviewed until they "disclosed" mythical abuse -- a 1980s version of the "spectral evidence" used in the 1692 Salem witch trials. The prosecutor responsible has enjoyed political cover from a faction in one of our largest local newspapers, with a "tonton macoute" journalistic ethic.
A 150-word summary of the case follows. For more detail, check the web-site references in Section 1 below.
Starting in 1984, the office of Middlesex County DA Scott Harshbarger announced that Violet Amirault, her daughter Cheryl Amirault LeFave, and her son Gerald Amirault, owners of the successful 20-year-old Fells Acres day-care center in Malden MA, had suddenly converted it into a factory of child pornography and the most horrifying ritual abuse of helpless toddlers. Juries were persuaded to convict the Amiraults in 1986 (Gerald) and 1987 (Violet and Cheryl), due exclusively to the coached testimony of 3- and 4-year old children. No physical evidence or adult witness for any of the charges was ever found, despite the fact that the day-care center had always been open to a steady stream of unannounced parents and tradesmen. Starting in 1991, psychologists demonstrated how the leading questions used in cases like Fells Acres can brainwash child witnesses, but the Massachusetts legal establishment has, despite valiant efforts of some Middlesex County trial judges, refused to correct a scandal.
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(Note: the word "skeptic" is used below to mean someone "skeptical" of the prosecution, someone who believes that the Amiraults are innocent.)
Former MIT professor Jonathan Harris was the first to publicize extensive research on Fells Acres.
PBS "Frontline" has a good site on Edenton NC's similar "Little Rascals" case
Carol Hopkins's "Justice Committee," opponents of false "abuse" allegations and prosecutions, maintain this site.
Some newer articles posted to this site (since 1997)
On 24 March 1997, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts reinstated the convictions, in an appalling 6-1 decision that even a miscarriage of justice (though they didn't admit it was one) must have "finality." (Associate Justice Francis P. O'Connor was the only dissenter; he retired on 12 June 1997.) Perhaps, given a hothouse climate in Boston, like-thinking between our Attorney General and certain witchhunters on the staff of our most powerful newspaper (See below, paragraphs 5B and 4B), the SJC did not realize until the day after 24 March how egregiously out of step they were with national standards of decency. Reinstating an unjust conviction guaranteed against "finality," and promises to shred the SJC's reputation before the US Supreme Court.
One less-noticed feature of Justice Charles Fried's majority opinion, however, was that for future trials involving child witnesses, Judge Barton's constitutional finding was correct, that they must "confront" the accused.
The case went back down to Judge Barton (who recused himself) and then to Judge Isaac Borenstein, who was supposed to rubber-stamp the Amiraults' return to jail. Instead, on 9 May 97, he overturned their conviction on new grounds, that their attorneys at the original 1987 trial, Joseph J. and Juliane Balliro, had provided "ineffective counsel" by failing to object to the seating plan for child witnesses, later ruled unconstitutional. (The Balliros actually have an excellent reputation, so applying the concept of "ineffective counsel" to them [with their consent] was a bit of a stretch.) SJC Justice Charles Fried was probably astonished to see language from his own 24 March decision used to nullify it.
On 19 Jun 97, Justice Neil L. Lynch of the MA Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) turned down a request by Middlesex County DA Thomas F. Reilly, to reinstate the convictions immediately and order the Amiraults to jail. Instead, he sent the case back to go through the normal appellate process ("Boston Globe," F 20 Jun 97, p. A23).
On 13 Sep 97, Violet Amirault died of cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), making her case moot.
On 29 Oct 1997, the MA Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) turned down the appeal by Middlesex County DA Thomas F. Reilly, to reinstate the Fells Acres conviction of Cheryl Amirault and order her back to jail ("Boston Herald," Thurs 30 Oct 97, p. 29). In an unexpected development, they deferred their decision on the "ineffective counsel" appeal until Judge Borenstein held hearings and ruled on a separate motion: Was the original testimony of toddlers used to convict Cheryl Amirault LeFave tainted by suggestive questioning (aka "brainwashing")?
Over the next few months, Judge Borenstein reviewed the entire case record and voluminous briefs by each side. On 17-18 Feb, he heard two expert defense witnesses, Dr. Maggie Bruck and Diane Schetky, M.D. At a brief hearing on April 14, the prosecution was unable to present an expert witness of their own.
On 12 Jun 1998, Judge Borenstein issued a 140-page opinion, ruling (1) that Cheryl Amirault LeFave was entitled to a new trial, because crucial "new evidence" (scientific research on suggestibility of small children) was not available at her original 1987 trial, and (2) The memories of the child witnesses were hopelessly unreliable, tainted by coercive and incompetent interviews, and they would not be allowed to testify at any new trial. The full opinion, indexed at this site, is well worth reading.
The Prosecution filed an immediate appeal. Neither former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (who no longer has direct responsibility for the case), his followers at the "Boston Globe," nor his protege current MA Attorney General Thomas Reilly admit to doing anything wrong.
The prosecution's appeal was argued before the SJC on 6 May 99.
On Wed 18 Aug 99, the SJC restored the conviction.
I don't blame them much for throwing out the "ineffective counsel" argument.
They are blind, however, to assert that Dr. Bruck's expert testimony on brainwashing of young witnesses was not "new evidence," of crucial importance to jurors in determining the truth.
Cheryl's only hope at this point may be the Federal courts. I believe it was a Federal judge who threw out Janet Reno's frame-up of Grant Snowden in Florida, but I am not sure of the quality of Federal judges in Massachusetts.
Cheryl Amirault LeFave's current attorneys are James L. Sultan of Boston and Dan Williams (mentioned above).
Violet's son Gerald (Cheryl's brother) remains jailed on similar charges. Until her retirement in 1998, his appeals had to go through his original trial judge Elizabeth Dolan, who admits to no flaw in his original trial.
View newer articles on Fells Acres, especially the 6 May 99 hearing before the SJC.
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(1) For more on the nationwide "Satanic ritual abuse" scare, see Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, "SATAN'S SILENCE: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt," Basic Books (Harper Collins Publishers), 1995.
On pp. 114-116, Nathan and Snedeker draw contrasts between "ritual abuse" accusations and normal, scientifically validated accusations.
(b) Themes in ritual abuse cases (pornography, masks, rituals, uniforms, excrement, blasphemy, and murder) tend to be "common motifs in normal, nonabused children's fantasies. At the beginning of the 1980s, child psychology researcher Frances Ilg and her colleagues compiled a list of fears typical to children of varying ages. They found that toddlers and preschoolers are afraid of clowns, Halloween masks, ambulances, monsters in the dark, animals, policemen, and burglars. ... Much of the content of ritual abuse cases is supplied by these perfectly normal fears. Scatalogical themes such as feces express primitive preoccupations with toilet training."
(c) Other ritual abuse themes pick up on local prejudices (eg against Black men in America, or Germans in the Netherlands), or urban legends (eg that in some school, never specifically identified, a liberal sex educator put young children into a dark room and encouraged them to grope each other).
(b) "None of the accusing children made their first disclosure to our investigators, so you can't say we made the whole thing up."--
2. Logs and tapes of later interviews between social workers and children show the interviewers refused to take "no" for an answer, and kept coming back over months. ["Boston Globe," Sun 19 Mar 95, p. 17]
The prosecution do, however, deserve some credit for taping many of these interviews, in contrast to practice in the "Little Rascals" case of Edenton NC.
(d) "The trials followed the law and were reviewed by higher courts"--
This seems to be a DA's equivalent to the Nuremberg defense ("I was only following orders!"). Nevertheless, a DA is in a position of leadership, and has the front-line responsibility to prevent or correct miscarriages of justice. Perhaps DA Harshbarger was honestly swept away by the mob hysteria of the mid 1980s. Nevertheless, he had plenty of opportunity over succeeding years, like Fells Acres Judge John Paul Sullivan, to recognize new findings on children's memory and on the non-existence of ritual abuse, and seek to correct his error. It is also a leader's job to ask for legal changes, both to protect the innocent from false charges in the future, and to protect helpless children from devastating malpractice.
It is not part of the pattern, however, that the entire staff of a large, successful daycare center should suddenly, after 20 years, go crazy and start a Satanic cult, all without ever being seen by the constant stream of unannounced adult visitors (parents, tradesmen, etc) who show up throughout the day. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." (See also section 5D.)
(Honest investigators have devised rules for videotaped first interviews, which clarify the difference between what the child actually remembers and what he picks up later from others. Though I do not have a cite at hand, I understand that some less honest characters advise prosecutors to destroy initial records of child interrogations, lest they provide evidence of the accused's innocence. (!)
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4. Notes on the Boston media
Return to Bob Chatelle's Fells Acres site.
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