You've probably never heard of Gerald Amirault. He was released from a Massachusetts prison nine months ago after having served eighteen years for the molestation and rape of eight children who had been in his care at what became the notorious Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden.
The Long Road Out of Lake Charles
Wilbert Rideau, Convicted Three Times for a 1961 Killing, Goes Free
By Wil Haygood Washington Post Staff Writer
LAKE CHARLES, La. -- It ended in the night, much as it had begun nearly 44 years ago.
In 1961, a young black man named Wilbert Rideau kidnapped three whites and shot and stabbed one of them to death after a bank robbery in this town with the sweet-sounding name.
Late Saturday night, a mixed-race jury found Rideau -- who had been convicted of murder three times by all-white juries -- guilty of manslaughter.
That allowed him to walk out of prison a free man because he had already served nearly twice the maximum sentence for that crime.
The verdict ended a decades-long ordeal for a man who had gained fame as a prison journalist, winning the prestigious George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards and sharing an Academy Award nomination for a documentary film.
Rideau, now 62, says he hopes to write and "redeem myself in the eyes of all those who had faith in me during all these years."
"This jury," he said, "reached back and pulled a judgment out of the racial clutches I was long in."
Rideau's defense team was ecstatic. "This is a case about fairness and redemption," said Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It's tragic it has taken Wilbert Rideau over 40 years to receive a fair trial before justice could prevail in this case."
The story began two days after Valentine's Day in 1961 when a 19-year-old Rideau pulled out a white-handled pistol inside a branch of the Gulf National Bank and watched as money was loaded into a suitcase. Then, startled by a ringing telephone, he forced two tellers and the bank manager into a car.
He now claims he was going to eventually let them walk back to town.
But on the outskirts of Lake Charles, in the dark, he shot all three -- two survived -- as he emptied his pawnshop-purchased .22. One of the tellers, Dora McCain, testified in a previous trial that she pretended to be dead. Rideau stabbed the second teller, Julia Ferguson, in the chest as she was attempting to get up, killing her.
Sentenced to death -- a sentence commuted to life in the early '70s after the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional -- Rideau set out on a personal odyssey of redemption, rehabilitating himself as a prison journalist, becoming co-editor of the Angolite, a magazine produced by the prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola that has frequently been a finalist for a National Magazine Award. A model prisoner, he gave speeches, drew praise from prison reformers, and as the decades rolled by -- the '70s, the '80s, the '90s -- he achieved a bewildering kind of fame behind bars.
In 1993, Life magazine referred to him as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." In 1998 he garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary for "The Farm: Angola, USA," a film about prison life. (link)
Two cases involving individuals who, having served lengthy prison sentences after having been convicted of horrific crimes, were released and were able to reenter society free men.
Amirault released from prison after 18 years
Associated Press/April 30, 2004 By Shannon Boklaschuk
Norfolk, Mass. -- Gerald "Tooky'' Amirault waved and smiled nervously as he was released from prison Friday, 18 years after his controversial conviction in one of the country's most bizarre and bitterly disputed child-molestation cases.
More than a dozen family members and friends were on hand as Amirault left Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk with his wife, Patti, and his attorney, James Sultan. His three adult children followed in another car.
Amirault was convicted in 1986 of molesting and raping eight 3- and 4-year-old children at his family's Fells Acres day care center in Malden. But he insisted he was innocent throughout his imprisonment, refusing to undergo counseling for sex abuse because he viewed it as an admission of guilt.
"It's a bit overwhelming,'' Amirault said. "I'm grateful to my wife and my children and the family and friends I have that are surrounding me. This is what's representative of Gerald Amirault and his family, not this case, this Fells Acres fraud.''
His sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, who was also convicted in the case, smiled broadly and gave the thumbs-up sign as her brother's long ordeal came to an end.
"We won't ever forget what happened to our family,'' LeFave said.
But Amirault's joyous release from prison did not end the controversy that has swirled around the case for two decades.
In a case that came to symbolize changing attitudes toward the mass prosecution of child sex abuse cases, the Amiraults insisted they were victims of the day care sex abuse hysteria that swept the country in the 1980s.
They claimed they were railroaded by questionable testimony from child witnesses who they said were badgered by well-meaning therapists until they concocted their tales of abuse.
"We invite scrutiny,'' Amirault said "We're not afraid of the truth.'' (link)
So why is it the story of Wilbert Rideau is getting so much attention while that of Gerald Amirault was virtually ignored? Of the two stories, you'd think it would be the Amirault case that would get the greater media scrutiny in that Amirault, since the day he was originally implicated, has maintained his innocence. And because of the implausibility of the charges and the ages of his accusers - 3 and 4. Throughout his incarceration, he made no attempt to plead to a lesser charge or to admit guilt in any way. To this day, he maintains that he was wrongly accused and convicted in an era when day care center abuses were being widely "reported" around the country, an "epidemic" that seemed to die away as quickly as it hit the front page.
It is worth noting, too, that Rideau never declared his innocence with regard to having killed his hostage. In fact, he has now been convicted four times by four separate juries. Only the last trial jury found him guilty of manslaughter, a crime punishable by a lesser prison sentence; one allowing him to go free for time served.
There is one unmistakable reason for the disparity in the coverage of these two stories. One fits the media template; the other doesn't.
Look at it this way. Say you had millions of dollars to invest and decided you wanted to put that money in the development of a movie; one for which you would expect to get a healthy return on your investment. Would you rather spend your money on a movie about a black man, from an impoverished background, growing up in the segregated south, falling in with the wrong crowd, and committing a crime for which he was truly sorry but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Will Smith as the good guy brutally punished by a racist jury. His is a story about a black man who, throughout his years behind bars, devoted his life to helping others and, after a time, gained world renown for his writing abilities, eventually being rewarded the coveted George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards. Halle Berry could play his wife who stuck by him all those years. Black youth in the deep south. 1961. All white jury. Murder. Life imprisonment. Redemption. Model prisoner. Devotion to his fellow man. Release from prison after 44 years to start a new life. Shoot, I smell an Oscar as I write this. I can see statues being erected in his honor.
Or would you invest those same millions in a movie about a white guy who was accused of raping three and four-year old children, in a day care facility, was convicted and, even though he professed his innocence, was kept behind bars by a socially conscious judicial system that saw to it that Gerald Amirault was never going to be allowed to prey on innocent little babies again. Who would play the lead? Who would want to?
This is what the media template is all about. One man served a lengthy prison sentence for a crime he readily admitted having committed. The other a story about a man wrongly convicted, sentenced, and kept behind bars for years even though the preponderance of evidence showed without a shadow of a doubt that he was innocent of any crime. There is no interest in this story on the part of the media.
You tell me, which story deserves to be made into a movie?
Dorothy Rabinowitz, the finest journalist of my lifetime, wrote the following article for the Wall Street Journal about the Amirault saga.
Now that's a story for the ages.
NO CRUELER TYRANNIES
Homecoming Gerald Amirault enjoys his first days of freedom in 18 years.
BY DOROTHY RABINOWITZ Friday, May 28, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
On the morning of April 30, the day Gerald Amirault was released from Bay State Correctional Facility after 18 years of imprisonment on charges that he had sexually assaulted and tortured children, Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley gave press interviews announcing that the most important thing to keep in mind about this case was that it had been valid, the convictions just; and that the children had told the truth. Some days earlier, the district attorney had also made known her decision not to file a petition seeking to keep Gerald Amirault imprisoned on the grounds that he was a sexually dangerous person. She had come to this decision, she explained, because she had insufficient evidence of such a charge.
Many a student of the Amirault case must have been awed by the magnitude of that understatement. Even if Ms. Coakley had been inclined--as she clearly was not--to try to have Gerald Amirault classified as a sexually dangerous person, she would have had to mount a rerun of the entire investigation and trials of the Amiraults, before a jury. The prospect of entering a Massachusetts courtroom today, with the testimony about magic rooms, bad clowns, animal butchery and the rest, that the original prosecutor, then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger, offered as evidence against Gerald and his sister and mother in the 1980s, must have been blood-chilling. All things considered, it wasn't surprising that Ms. Coakley should have decided it would be best to tie things up with the standard professions of faith--one last claim that the children had not lied, one final assertion that the Amiraults had been justly convicted--and let it all go.
Gerald Amirault's 18-year imprisonment ended early on a sun-filled day. Under press helicopters hovering in the bluest of skies, dozens of family members, and his attorney, traveled in packed cars to claim him. Troopers managed to hold the mass of reporters and camera crews well away from the prison grounds, as his wife, Patricia Amirault, and the three now-adult Amirault children, assorted in-laws and others made their unsteady way across the grounds toward the building where the prisoner would be delivered for release. Nothing in the long years they had spent waiting for this moment had prepared them for it--for this march under the bright sun, the pressure of their unshed tears--as they struggled to move quietly, straight ahead.
Outside the building, a pleasant officer quickly informed them, with evident regret, that regulations forbade their entry. They would have to wait outside. Almost as quickly, something changed and they were all ushered into the building. The rule had been waived. Inside the small room, a tanned and joyful Gerald came bounding out to meet his sobbing family and friends.
The night before, members of the prison staff had come down to say goodbye and shake his hand. Inside the prison system, as outside, were people who had long grasped that in the Fells Acres Day School case of the '80s, three innocent Americans had been convicted on trumped-up charges reflective of a hysterical time. School principal Violet Amirault had been hounded virtually to her death, by then-District Attorney Tom Reilly, (Mr. Harshbarger's successor), who was determined that she and her daughter Cheryl be returned to prison after lower-court judges had ordered new trials and reversed their convictions.
Everyone following the case had by now grasped that the Commonwealth prosecutors would spare no effort to keep Gerald in prison, and that in their unyielding struggle to preserve their convictions in the Fells Acres case, the prosecutors could count on the faithful support of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
In the early afternoon of Gerald's release day, a noisy assemblage of family and friends packed the large room of a Boston restaurant--a celebration that brought together many of those who had remained at the Amiraults' side: relatives, neighbors and others who had offered their friendship, and who had, over the years, lived through every turn of the case, every dashed hope and denied appeal, along with the family.
The day had begun early for the Amiraults, particularly Patricia, who found one of her neighbors at the door at 5 in the morning--a well-wisher anxious to begin the festivities. In one car headed back to Boston from the prison that morning, Gerald's brother-in-law Al, a trucker, took incessant cell phone calls of congratulation from his fellow drivers. At Cheryl's office the afternoon before, her colleagues had thrown a small celebration with champagne.
Among the restaurant celebrants was Patricia's father, Phil McGonagle, a man who had prayed, after the trial and conviction back in the '80s, that he be allowed to live long enough to see his son-in-law freed. At his side sat his wife, Mary McGonagle, who had made it her business to wait for a phone call from the prison every night in all the years of Gerald's imprisonment. After he had finished talking to his wife and children, she was the one Gerald called. Such conversations could not have been easy--what had she found to talk about, all those nights? Every little thing, she said, as though describing a routine service everyone might have been expected to perform. The conversations lifted his spirit, that she could see. During the day she would often prepare for them by watching hockey or basketball or other games--none of this normally of any interest to her--in order to give him tidbits of sports news.
Scattered around the restaurant tables as well sat Gerald's numerous nieces and nephews. Young adults now, they had as children been familiar faces at every courtroom proceeding involving the Amiraults.
They had grown up with the tragedy of Violet, Gerald and Cheryl. All have been a part of the intransigently hopeful band of relatives who sat through all the hearings and waited for the outcome of appeals to the state's highest court--invariably denied. The most notorious of the denials had been authored by Associate Justice Charles Fried--a decision that held that the court should not reopen a case "society has the right to consider closed." The justice allowed, remarkably enough, that hysteria had indeed affected the child-abuse investigations in the Fells Acres case; that children fed leading questions made charges that might otherwise never have occurred to them; that, indeed, the defendants had been denied a basic constitutional right. But none of this was enough, Justice Fried argued, to "waken doubts" about whether justice had been done.
However often defeated, the Amirault family and their supporters could always manage to find a ray of hope, thin though it might be. Some had actually found cause for cheer, however brief, when they learned that Harvard's Margaret Marshall, reputed to be a strong advocate for social justice, would be joining the Supreme Judicial Court. Justice Marshall in short order proved herself a reliable supporter of the majority that upheld the Amiraults' prosecutors, as one of the justices who signed onto Justice Fried's decision extolling the value of "finality." There had been but one dissenter--Justice Francis P. O'Connor--who pointed out that the desire for finality "should not eclipse our concern that in our courts justice not miscarry." The court's regular denials of the Amiraults' appeals moved the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly to an unprecedented editorial pointing out that the Supreme Judicial Court seemed determined to defend the prosecutors and keep the defendants behind bars.
From time to time, the inveterate optimists in the Amiraults' circle found cause for hope in state leaders. Republican Paul Cellucci, who defeated the Democratic candidate and Amirault prosecutor, Scott Harshbarger, in 2000, had indicated in public his belief that justice had not been done in the Amirault case. Unfortunately, Mr. Cellucci--whose Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously called for commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence--moved on to a post in the new Bush administration. That left in charge his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, who overruled the Board of Pardons decision in the hope that she might scrape up enough votes as a crusader against child sex abuse to salvage her hopeless run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Even now, the door seemingly closed to Gerald's freedom for no one knew how many years more, his supporters found cause to hope that the new Republican governor, Mitt Romney, might take up what Gov. Cellucci had begun, and look at the case. A wholly unfounded hope as it turned out: Gov. Romney's office proved more studiously indifferent to all queries related to the case than any previous governor.
All this seems a long way off now to Gerald, still accustoming himself to cell phones and shopping in malls. Wherever he goes, he finds a warm welcome. Everyone is more than kind, including the local police chief, who sent a letter to Mrs. Amirault explaining that he had had nothing to do with the original case--and that he hoped she knew that if she saw a police car near the house it was intended as support for the family.
On the street, strangers flock around Gerald, well-wishers want to shake his hand. He had had no doubts that life would be good, that he would relish every minute of his homecoming, but there is no mistaking a faint note of wonder in his tone, a month after his release, at the depth of his happiness. He is looking around for a job, and in the meantime busying himself fixing things around the house that fell into disrepair while he was gone--one of the things he dreamed of doing while in prison.
His daughters, 25-year-old Gerrilyn and 24-year-old Katie, note that their mother has a glint of youthful joy now, the first they've seen in all the years of their life together. Yes, she had heard, Patricia Amirault says, that there could be problems in adjustment and such, only to be expected in circumstances like theirs. Yet what problems could there possibly be, she scoffs, that could compare with those she and her husband faced when he was hauled away to prison, declared a monster, and she was left with three small children.
"We got through that, and everything that came after. What can happen now that we couldn't deal with?"
Her 50-year-old husband is, today, both the same man and one remarkably different from the one taken off to prison--a man who exudes an unmistakable inner confidence. Some of that core of assurance, one could guess, stemmed from the way he had dealt with his life behind bars. A man who knew himself to be innocent, as he did; who steadfastly refused to behave otherwise--and refused all the sex-offender treatment programs, whatever it might have gained him--has no doubt learned something about himself more valuable to him, in the end, than a few years' earlier release.
One of his great fears in prison was that he would still be locked up and miss seeing one of his children married. This summer, he will see the first wedding, that of his youngest daughter, Katie. For this, for his stalwart wife and family and for all the days still to be lived with them, he is a grateful man--one also with a huge store of memories and everything still to say, when the time comes. (link)
The court system in Massachusetts was the villain in this sad saga. As were many of the politcal leaders of the state, Republican and Democrat alike. Most of all, the news media, to a man and a woman, should be ashamed of their actions in the Amirault case. They, more than anyone else, distorted the truth, shielded the accusers, ignored the overwhelming weight of the evidence, and breathlessly "reported," night after night the preposterous stories about what went on at the Fells Acres Day Care Center.
And yet they don't seem to have learned anything from this. If anything, they are probably out right now searching for the next Wilbert Rideau to make a "Movie-of-the-Week" out of. Either that or a reality TV show.
How does this sound? "Survivor: Folsom Prison."