The last of three deeply troubling convictions from the 1980s that some specialists have compared to the Salem witchcraft trial convictions has now been overturned. A highly respected Massachusetts judge last week threw out the convictions of Violet Amirault and her daughter Cheryl Amirault LeFave, who have spent eight years in prison for allegedly sexually abusing 40 children in the Fells Acres Day School outside Boston.
The technical reason for the reversal was that some children had their backs turned to the defendants while testifying in court. But this case, like the McMartin Preschool case in California and the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey, really hinged on the question of whether impressionable children could be brought through repetitive questioning to believe they were abused, even though most at first repeatedly denied it. Much more is now known about the impressionability of young children and the likelihood that well-meaning but overzealous social workers, psychiatrists, and prosecutors can plant in children's memories events that did not take place.
Many other disturbing child-abuse cases rest on strong original evidence and corroboration at the outset without suasion over the children. These cases were exceptions.
Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harschbarger and his successor as Middlesex County District Attorney, Thomas Riley, have expressed outrage at the decision. Both men are honorable and upstanding public servants, but in this case we believe more than reasonable doubt has been brought forward since the trial. We urge them to drop plans to appeal and to forgo another prosecution. Gerald Amirault, Violet's son, is appealing his conviction, and we believe that, too, should be thrown out.
The lesson of all these cases: Protection of children is an important priority in today's society. But it should not annul the civil rights of adults, including the right to due process and a fair trial.
Protecting children is an important priority, but does not annul the civil rights of adults.