BOSTON — The supreme judicial court of Massachusetts last week could have ended perhaps the commonwealth's worst miscarriage of justice since the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of the 1920s. Sadly, it did not.
The high court (SJC) overturned a trial judge's ruling that Cheryl Amirault LeFave, one of the defendants in the infamous Fells Acres child-abuse case, should get a new trial. It was the second time in two years the court refused to correct what is now widely understood by experts as a prosecution that should never have been brought.
The case was one of several in the 1980s hysteria surrounding allegations of child sexual abuse at day-care centers. The most famous, the McMartin Preschool case in California, lasted for years before the defendants were acquitted.
In each of these cases, as in the Fells Acres case, many of the prosecutors, social workers, and psychiatrists bribed and badgered children until they said they had been abused. Each case was marked by fantastic testimony from children about animal torture, secret rooms, magic potions, evil clowns, elephants, and robots. One child in the McMartin case claimed to have been molested in a hot-air balloon.
This is not the stuff of a typical sexual-abuse case. The similarity of the absurdities resulted from interrogators working from the same list of expected "symptoms." The results of investigations took on the flavor of the Salem witchcraft trials. Many who have studied these cases now recognize them as prime examples of the misuse of "junk" science and pseudo-therapy.
Two different trial judges who reviewed the case understood that. In 1995, one judge freed Mrs. LeFave and her mother, Violet Amirault, on grounds their right to face their accusers was violated by courtroom procedure. The SJC overruled him and ordered them sent back to prison, where they had already served eight years.
Then a second judge ordered a new trial on the grounds the evidence was tainted by investigators' suggestive and manipulative interrogations of the children. The usually wise SJC erred by overturning that ruling last week.
All the other high-profile cases of the 1980s ended in victory for the defendants. Mrs. LeFave must now return to prison to serve the rest of an eight-to-20-year sentence. (Her mother is deceased.) Her brother, Gerald Amirault, has remained in prison all along, serving a 30-to-40-year sentence on the basis of the same bad evidence.
Two avenues are now open before the Amirault family: They can seek clemency from Gov. A. Paul Cellucci (R), who should have the courage to do the right thing and grant it.
Or they can seek redress in a federal court. Perhaps there they will find due process and a fair trial.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society