Martha Coakley’s Convictions – Wall Street Journal
The role played by the U.S. Senate candidate in a notorious sex case raises questions about her judgment.
The story of the Amiraults of Massachusetts, and of the prosecution that had turned the lives of this thriving American family to dust, was well known to the world by the year 2001. It was well known, especially, to District Attorney Martha Coakley, who had by then arrived to take a final, conspicuous, role in a case so notorious as to assure that the Amiraults’ name would be known around the globe.
The Amiraults were a busy, confident trio, grateful in the way of people who have found success after a life of hardship. Violet had reared her son Gerald and daughter Cheryl with help from welfare, and then set out to educate herself. The result was the triumph of her life—the Fells Acres school—whose every detail Violet scrutinized relentlessly. Not for nothing was the pre-school deemed by far the best in the area, with a long waiting list for admission.
All of it would end in 1984, with accusations of sexual assault and an ever-growing list of parents signing their children on to the case. Newspaper and television reports blared a sensational story about a female school principal, in her 60s, who had daily terrorized and sexually assaulted the pupils in her care, using sharp objects as her weapon. So too had Violet’s daughter Cheryl, a 28-year old teacher at the school.
But from the beginning, prosecutors cast Gerald as chief predator—his gender qualifying him, in their view, as the best choice for the role. It was that role, the man in the family, that would determine his sentence, his treatment, and, to the end, his prosecution-inspired image as a pervert too dangerous to go free.
The accusations against the Amiraults might well rank as the most astounding ever to be credited in an American courtroom, but for the fact that roughly the same charges were brought by eager prosecutors chasing a similar headline—making cases all across the country in the 1980s. Those which the Amiraults’ prosecutors brought had nevertheless, unforgettable features: so much testimony, so madly preposterous, and so solemnly put forth by the state. The testimony had been extracted from children, cajoled and led by tireless interrogators.
Gerald, it was alleged, had plunged a wide-blade butcher knife into the rectum of a 4-year-old boy, which he then had trouble removing. When a teacher in the school saw him in action with the knife, she asked him what he was doing, and then told him not to do it again, a child said. On this testimony, Gerald was convicted of a rape which had, miraculously, left no mark or other injury. Violet had tied a boy to a tree in front of the school one bright afternoon, in full view of everyone, and had assaulted him anally with a stick, and then with “a magic wand.” She would be convicted of these charges. Cheryl had cut the leg off a squirrel.
Other than such testimony, the prosecutors had no shred of physical or other proof that could remotely pass as evidence of abuse. But they did have the power of their challenge to jurors: Convict the Amiraults to make sure the battle against child abuse went forward. Convict, so as not to reject the children who had bravely come forward with charges.
Gerald was sent to prison for 30 to 40 years, his mother and sister sentenced to eight to 20 years. The prosecutors celebrated what they called, at the time “a model, multidisciplinary prosecution.” Gerald’s wife, Patricia, and their three children—the family unfailingly devoted to him—went on with their lives. They spoke to him nightly and cherished such hope as they could find, that he would be restored to them.
Hope arrived in 1995, when Judge Robert Barton ordered a new trial for the women. Violet, now 72, and Cheryl had been imprisoned eight years. This toughest of judges, appalled as he came to know the facts of the case, ordered the women released at once. Judge Barton—known as Black Bart for the long sentences he gave criminals—did not thereafter trouble to conceal his contempt for the prosecutors. They would, he warned, do all in their power to hold on to Gerald, a prediction to prove altogether accurate.
No less outraged, Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein presided over a widely publicized hearings into the case resulting in findings that all the children’s testimony was tainted. He said that “Every trick in the book had been used to get the children to say what the investigators wanted.” The Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly—which had never in its 27 year history taken an editorial position on a case—published a scathing one directed at the prosecutors “who seemed unwilling to admit they might have sent innocent people to jail for crimes that had never occurred.”
It was clear, when Martha Coakley took over as the new Middlesex County district attorney in 1999, that public opinion was running sharply against the prosecutors in the case. Violet Amirault was now gone. Ill and penniless after her release, she had been hounded to the end by prosecutors who succeeded in getting the Supreme Judicial Court to void the women’s reversals of conviction. She lay waiting all the last days of her life, suitcase packed, for the expected court order to send her back to prison. Violet would die of cancer before any order came in September 1997.
That left Cheryl alone, facing rearrest. In the face of the increasing furor surrounding the case, Ms. Coakley agreed to revise and revoke her sentence to time served—but certain things had to be clear, she told the press. Cheryl’s case, and that of Gerald, she explained, had nothing to do with one another—a startling proposition given the horrific abuse charges, identical in nature, of which all three of the Amiraults had been convicted.
No matter: When women were involved in such cases, the district attorney explained, it was usually because of the presence of “a primary male offender.” According to Ms. Coakley’s scenario, it was Gerald who had dragged his mother and sister along. Every statement she made now about Gerald reflected the same view, and the determination that he never go free. No one better exemplified the mindset and will of the prosecutors who originally had brought this case.
Before agreeing to revise Cheryl’s sentence to time served, Ms. Coakley asked the Amiraults’ attorney, James Sultan, to pledge—in exchange—that he would stop representing Gerald and undertake no further legal action on his behalf. She had evidently concluded that with Sultan gone—Sultan, whose mastery of the case was complete—any further effort by Gerald to win freedom would be doomed. Mr. Sultan, of course, refused.
In 2000, the Massachusetts Governor’s Board of Pardons and Paroles met to consider a commutation of Gerald’s sentence. After nine months of investigation, the board, reputed to be the toughest in the country, voted 5-0, with one abstention, to commute his sentence. Still more newsworthy was an added statement, signed by a majority of the board, which pointed to the lack of evidence against the Amiraults, and the “extraordinary if not bizarre allegations” on which they had been convicted.
Editorials in every major and minor paper in the state applauded the Board’s findings. District Attorney Coakley was not idle either, and quickly set about organizing the parents and children in the case, bringing them to meetings with Acting Gov. Jane Swift, to persuade her to reject the board’s ruling. Ms. Coakley also worked the press, setting up a special interview so that the now adult accusers could tell reporters, once more, of the tortures they had suffered at the hands of the Amiraults, and of their panic at the prospect of Gerald going free.
On Feb. 20, 2002, six months after the Board of Pardons issued its findings, the governor denied Gerald’s commutation.
Gerald Amirault spent nearly two years more in prison before being granted parole in 2004. He would be released, with conditions not quite approximating that of a free man. He was declared a level three sex offender—among the consequences of his refusal, like that of his mother and sister, to “take responsibility” by confessing his crimes. He is required to wear, at all times, an electronic tracking device; to report, in a notebook, each time he leaves the house and returns; to obey a curfew confining him to his home between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. He may not travel at all through certain areas (presumably those where his alleged victims live). He can, under these circumstances, find no regular employment.
The Amirault family is nonetheless grateful that they are together again.
Attorney General Martha Coakley—who had proven so dedicated a representative of the system that had brought the Amirault family to ruin, and who had fought so relentlessly to preserve their case—has recently expressed her view of this episode. Questioned about the Amiraults in the course of her current race for the U.S. Senate, she told reporters of her firm belief that the evidence against the Amiraults was “formidable” and that she was entirely convinced “those children were abused at day care center by the three defendants.”
What does this say about her candidacy? (Ms. Coakley declined to be interviewed.) If the current attorney general of Massachusetts actually believes, as no serious citizen does, the preposterous charges that caused the Amiraults to be thrown into prison—the butcher knife rape with no blood, the public tree-tying episode, the mutilated squirrel and the rest—that is powerful testimony to the mind and capacities of this aspirant to a Senate seat. It is little short of wonderful to hear now of Ms. Coakley’s concern for the rights of terror suspects at Guantanamo—her urgent call for the protection of the right to the presumption of innocence.
If the sound of ghostly laughter is heard in Massachusetts these days as this campaign rolls on, with Martha Coakley self-portrayed as the guardian of justice and civil liberties, there is good reason.