"In six different decisions in the Amirault cases, the [Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts] has seemed determined to defend the prosecutors and insist that these defendants belong behind bars. Virtually scoffing at any possibility that an injustice may have been done, the justices have been unyielding in their refusal to let a new trial take place."
That's not the emotional venting of some disappointed defense attorney. That is an editorial from a recent issue of the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which, according to the Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz, "never before in its 27-year history had . . . taken direct issue or sharply criticized any ruling by the state's highest court."
But if the words are extraordinary, so is the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling -- and its attitude.
What the court did in its August ruling was to reinstate the conviction of Cheryl Amirault LeFave, a former operator of the Fells Acres Day School, the center of one of the most sensational child molestation cases that swept the nation in the mid-1980s.
You remember the stories -- the Little Rascals day care center in Edenton, N.C., and the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles being among the most notorious.
In almost all of them, the operators and staffs of the day care centers were accused of scores of incidents of child molestation -- usually after counselors and other prosecution aides coaxed and cajoled the children to say they'd been abused.
It's hard to doubt that a number of men and women were wrongfully convicted, some of them serving years in prison for something they never did. Probably most of us believe now that these cases were contrived -- even if those who contrived them thought they were ferreting out truth. In just the same way, many of the psychologists and other practitioners of "recovered memory" (these days most often known by its more accurate term, "false memory") believed they were uncovering paternal sexual abuse, including rape, long-suppressed by their adult clients.
But members of the Massachusetts high court have the benefit of hindsight. They must know that "recovered memory" is mostly poppycock. They must know that the mass-molestation cases have mostly faded away -- through dismissed prosecutions, hung juries, dropped charges and other evidences of sober reflection.
I'm not suggesting that the justices should declare the Massachusetts defendants innocent, only that it must have occurred to them to want a clearer record of the prosecutions -- especially of the techniques used to generate the children's uncross-examined testimony.
To recap: Violet Amirault, her daughter and her son, had run their Malden, Mass., day care center for 20 years when, in 1984, the son was accused of sexually abusing a 5-year-old boy. The police contacted other parents, and before you knew it, a number of children said the Amiraults and other teachers at the school had abused them too -- sometimes with the aid of a Star Wars-like robot, sometimes hanging them naked from trees. No physical evidence was introduced to support the allegations.
No matter. Violet and Cheryl Amirault were sentenced to eight to 20 years' imprisonment, Gerald Amirault to 30 to 40 years'. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the convictions.
Violet, then 72, and Cheryl, 37, were released in September of 1995, after a lower court judge nullified their convictions and ordered a new trial. Violet died in September 1997, six months after the Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the convictions.
In June of 1998 a lower court judge again voided Cheryl's conviction, saying her alleged victims were manipulated by overzealous investigators. In August, the Supreme Judicial Court justices again reinstated the conviction.
What makes the justices so certain the youngsters weren't coaxed into their accusations? Isn't there enough doubt at least to order a new trial? Don't the prosecutors entertain sufficient doubt-of-hindsight to wonder if maybe they didn't get caught up in the hysteria surrounding the case?
Can they -- can anyone -- be sure that justice has been done?