No Pardons in the Fells Acres Day Care Center Case
Updated: Jul 14
Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts has rescinded his petition for pardons for two of the three people convicted in the 1980's Fells Acres Day Care Center child abuse case, following a contentious hearing on Wednesday, December 14, 2022. “Following yesterday’s hearing, it is apparent that there are not sufficient votes from the Governor’s Council to support a pardon for the Amiraults. Therefore, the Governor is withdrawing his pardon petition,” Baker's press secretary, Terry MacCormack, said.
What Happened with the Fells Acres Day Care Center Case?
The Fells Acres Day Care Center preschool trial was a notorious case in which several preschool-aged children accused three staff members of sexually abusing them in 1984. Although the methods of interviewing the children in the case were later found to be inadequate and prone to error, the three staff members involved, Gerald "Tooky" Amirault, his sister Cheryl Lefave-Amirault, and their late mother, Violet, were all convicted and served time in prison.
Much of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ case depended on information obtained in videotaped interviews of the children who were allegedly sexually abused by the Amiraults, conducted by Susan J. Kelley, a pediatric nurse. The interviews revealed that the children were raped with knives, sticks, forks, and “magic wands”; were assaulted by a clown (supposedly Gerald) in a “secret room” and a “magic room”; were forced to drink urine; were tied naked to a tree; and many other acts. [Commonwealth v. Amirault, 404 Mass. 221, 225 (Mass. 1989).] One child even testified that her wrists were slashed. [Commonwealth v. Amirault, 404 Mass. 221, 225 (Mass. 1989).] No physical evidence was presented.
Teachers testified that they never saw the defendant dressed as a clown, never saw a robot at the school, never heard of the magic or secret rooms. They testified that they were never restricted or denied access to any rooms in the school, that they never lost track of the children in their care for any length of time, never saw anything indicative of sexual abuse, and that the defendant was well-liked by the children. [Commonwealth v. Amirault, 404 Mass. 221, 225 (Mass. 1989).]
The main criticism of this case had to do with the reliability of the information obtained from the children as well as the manner of obtaining that information. During these interviews by Susan Kelley, over and over, the interviews show, the children said nothing happened, nobody took their clothes off, they knew nothing about a magic room or a bad clown. But the interviewer persisted, even telling one child that the child's friend had already testified that the clown had them take their clothes off. She asked children questions such as "Do you think that you could help me the same way that [another female child] did by telling me the story about what happened with the clown in the magic room [?]" In the world of these interviews, children were to be believed only when they said abuse took place. Otherwise, they were described as "not ready to disclose." Kelley also rejected alternative explanations for events and ignored the children's denials of the abuse scenarios. The Fells Acres children were bribed with gifts, and assured that their friends had already told about the bad things and "helped so much."
Despite the denials, the questioning continued and eventually the children claimed all these things happened. One police officer, John Rivers, said at a seminar that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from a stone".
What was the Basis of the Pardon Petitions by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker in the Fells Acres Day Care Center preschool Case?
In making the original pardon petitions, Governor Baker said that he was "left with grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions." He said that the trial proceedings back then "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."
The Creation of False Memories
Did the interviewing techniques in the Fells Acres Day Care Center preschool case perpetuate false memories in the children surrounding the allegations? Elizabeth F. Loftus, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington, conducted several groundbreaking studies on false memories and was able to demonstrate through her experiments how easily memories can be altered. In one experiment, she was able to plant a specific memory in her subjects that they had been lost in a shopping mall or large department store when they were about five years old, regardless of whether it was an actual event for them or not. Through her work, she concluded that misinformation can alter an individual's memory and create "false" recollections. This she dubbed this as the “misinformation effect” which has caused an increase awareness in different fields like police investigations where false confessions have been taken into consideration due to mishandling evidence during interviews.
The Importance of Investigative Protocols in Sex Abuse Cases
Since the Amirault sex abuse case in Malden, studies such as the one above, have highlighted just how important investigative protocols are when dealing with sex abuse cases, especially those involving children. Investigative protocols are sets of techniques and procedures employed by law enforcement to ensure the integrity of an investigation, and helps protect the rights of defendants by making sure that all investigations are done properly and fairly, resulting in obtaining accurate, factual information. This helps to ensure that innocent people don't get wrongfully convicted for crimes they didn't commit.
Structured forensic interview protocols are an essential tool in helping to improve the quality and informativeness of investigative interviews with children. These protocols give investigators clear guidance on how to best support the child during the experience and maximize the possible useful information from each individual case. Proper use of forensic interview protocols can help mitigate false allegations against innocent defendants by making sure that questions are age-appropriate, fact-finding and non-leading, creating a safer environment for children to express themselves and encouraging more accurate testimonies. It is therefore crucial that forensic interview protocols are implemented in order ensure the validity of any accused persons' allegations.
Failing to adhere to specific forensic interviewing protocols when interviewing children can lead to dire consequences that can significantly impact a guilty or innocent party. If the interviewer utilizes leading questions rather than open-ended ones, they may be inadvertently suggesting certain answers and facts, leading to false accusations against the defendant; this also increases the risk of coerced testimony and inaccurate information. Potential sentences may also be based off of weak testimonies created by improper questioning techniques, exacerbating any injustices that have been perpetuated throughout the case. Ultimately, forensic interview protocols are in place for a reason; without their full implementation and adherence, the criminal justice system risks damaging innocent defendants’ chance of receiving fair verdicts.
The Defense Attorney's Role
As the client's advocate, it is essential for a defense attorney to ensure that structured forensic interview protocols and procedures have been followed correctly and adequately in order to protect the client's rights and prove their innocence. The protection of these rights begins with a careful review of the interviews and all evidence collected by law enforcement. If any irregularities are found in an interview, it is likely that client's rights have been violated. It is only through meticulous attention to detail and thorough preparation that a defense attorney can guarantee their client receives fair treatment throughout all stages of their case.
I have over 30 years of extensive experience defending sex abuse cases in Massachusetts. My office ensures that the policies and procedures put in place to protect the rights of our clients and integrity of evidence in criminal proceedings are strictly adhered to. If you or someone you know has been accused of a sex crime, fill out the form on our contact page, call my office at (978) 744-1220, or text me at (978) 643-0552 for a free case evaluation. I will sit down with you, review the police report, and get your side of the story. No matter how complex your case may be, my team and I can provide the legal representation and support you deserve.