Governor’s Councilors skeptical of Amirault pardons

Hours-long hearing resurrects debate about 1980s child sex abuse case

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER recommended pardoning Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault Lefave, who were convicted in a high-profile child sexual abuse case. But members of the Governor’s Council on Tuesday suggested that their approval is far from a done deal.  

Amirault and Lefave were convicted of sexually abusing children at Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden in the 1980s — a case that has long raised questions about the integrity of the convictions.  

Amirault and Lefave have both maintained their innocence for 38 years. “My husband would never hurt another human being, let alone a child,” Amirault’s wife, Patti Amirault, told the Governor’s Council at a hearing on the pardon recommendation. “It’s a terrible burden for an innocent man.” 

But that stance has angered the children and families of those who say they were abused. Barbara Stadke attended the hearing to testify in support of her son and against the pardon. Stadke said her son entered daycare as a “normal 2-year-old” and over time began adopting sexual behaviors and showing signs of physical abuse. Her son, she said, was negatively impacted by the abuse and is now incarcerated.  

The child victims, Stadke said, are “going to be suffering for the rest of their lives.” 

The Fells Acres allegations triggered sexual abuse investigations at day care facilities across the country and also raised questions about coercive interview techniques used by social workers, law enforcement, and others. There was children’s testimony but no physical evidence supporting the allegations. 

Baker made the pardon recommendations against the advice of the state’s Advisory Board of Pardons, whose members also make up the state Parole Board, which refused to grant pardon hearings to Amirault and LeFave.  

The pardons will only go into effect if they are approved by the Governor’s Council. At least two of the eight councilors said they will oppose pardons, while others voiced serious skepticism, either because of the case itself or because of the process by which it reached the Governor’s Council. The council has not yet set a date for a vote.  

Councilor Marilyn Devaney said she has a friend whose daughter was sexually abused at Fells Acres. Devaney pleaded with fellow councilors not to pardon the Amiraults. “I stand by the parole board. God bless every one of them for voting no,” Devaney said.  

Devaney delivered an impassioned speech, citing graphic testimony about sexual abuse perpetrated on toddlers and young children. “I’m talking about reality, I’m not talking about children who make up things,” Devaney said.  

Asked by a reporter whether she would recuse herself from voting because she knows a victim, Devaney said there is no conflict of interest because the child is not related to her. 

Councilor Chris Iannella expressed anger at how James Sultan, an attorney who appeared on behalf of Lefave and Amirault, referred to the victims of sexual abuse as alleged victims. “They weren’t alleged. They are victims,” Iannella said, adding that if the Parole Board did not approve a pardon, he will not either.  

The hearing room was packed with more than 30 observers and witnesses, split between supporters of the Amiraults and supporters of the victims.  

Councilor Terrence Kennedy, who opened the hearing, said councilors were not there to retry the case. “This is not a trial. It’s not about guilt or innocence,” Kennedy said. “Nobody in Massachusetts can be nominated for a pardon unless they have been found guilty.” 

Yet Sultan’s opening statement addressed the flaws in the case, and for nearly two hours councilors quizzed Sultan about its details.   

Sultan compared the Amirault convictions to the Salem Witch Trials, citing allegations that seemed wild – sexual assaults with magic wands, naked teachers at school, and deaths of children that never occurred. The evidence in the case, Sultan said, was the “product of widespread hysteria and investigative blunders.” He added: “It’s a textbook example of how not to investigate such charges.”  

Sultan suggested that those who believe they were sexually molested have been victimized “not by the Amiraults but by those who investigated the case with good intentions and good faith but didn’t know how to do their job properly at the time.” 

Attorney Laurence Hardoon, the prosecutor in the initial Amirault trials who is now in private practice representing child abuse victims, countered that every contention the Amiraults are making now about their innocence or about improper investigative techniques was raised at one of the case’s two trials or one of the six times that issues in the case made it to the Supreme Judicial Court. “Their contention was rejected every single time, and that is because it is not supported by the evidence,” Hardoon said.  

Hardoon said there is no justification for a pardon that would be promoted by the supporters of the Amiraults as evidence of a wrongful conviction “that nullifies the longstanding legal history of the case and seeks to nullify the painful, emotional turmoil that the victims and families have lived with to this very day.” 

The council meeting was tense from the start. Kennedy said he asked Lefave and Amirault not to be present, and to have their interests represented by their attorney. “The temperature would be a lot lower without them here. Everyone has apretty good idea what they’d say. They’ve been saying it for the past 38 years,” Kennedy said. 

Iannella and Devaney both disagreed with his decision. “We deserve to see the people that we’re having this meeting for,” Devaney said. 

Baker, in issuing the pardon, said the investigations “took place without the benefit of scientific studies that have in the intervening years led to widespread adoption of investigative protocols designed to protect objectivity and reliability in the investigation of child sex abuse cases.” Baker said that, like many others who reviewed the case, he was “left with grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions.” 

Several councilors sounded openly skeptical of Baker’s decision to bypass the Board of Pardons. 

Councilor Paul DePalo said he had no in-depth information about the underlying facts of the case, other than information presented by the attorneys, because of the absence of a hearing by the Board of Pardons. “The process stinks. It does no good for your client,” DePalo told Sultan.  

Questioning Hardoon, DePalo said Baker’s avoidance of standard procedure and failure to provide an in-depth rationale for his recommendation makes the pardon recommendation “smell to high heaven.” 

Councilor Elaine Duff said she was unfamiliar with the case because she was out of state when it occurred, and she was shocked that in making his recommendation, Baker “didn’t give us anything. Zip, zero, nothing.”  

Duff said she does not believe the Governor’s Council has authority to issue a pardon in a case when there is no admission of guilt. “Your clients fall into a limbo that there is no judicial remedy for, at least at this time,” Duff told Sultan.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Charges against Gerald and Cheryl Amirault’s mother, day care center owner Violet Amirault, were dismissed against her posthumously. Lefave was released from prison after eight years, and Gerald Amirault was released on parole in 2004, after 18 years in prison. 

Lefave remains on the sex offender registry today. Amirault is still on parole, monitored with an ankle bracelet, for another year, and is also a registered sex offender. A pardon would clear both their records.