Board grants parole to Amirault

The state Parole Board has voted to grant parole to Gerald Amirault, who has served 17 years in prison for his conviction in one of the country’s most infamous cases of child sexual abuse.

Amirault, sentenced to 30 to 40 years for raping and molesting nine children at his family’s Fells Acres Day School in Malden, is set to be released in late April. Middlesex County prosecutors now have six months to decide, as they do with all paroled sex offenders, whether they will seek to have him civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person.

The decision announced yesterday could signal the end of the notorious sexual abuse case that spanned nearly two decades and dogged several governors. The children told lurid tales of sexual abuse, involving robots and the torture of animals, and the case helped spawn the national debate about the reliability of testimony from children. It was one of a host of mass child abuse cases at the time, including the Virginia McMartin Preschool in California.

“This is not a triumphant day for Gerald and his family,” said James L. Sultan, Amirault’s lawyer. “He is still in prison, and his wrongful conviction remains on the books. But it is a good day, a day on which his family’s long and courageous struggle for justice has achieved an important goal.”

Amirault, 49, has maintained his innocence since he was first accused nearly 20 years ago of molesting the children he was paid to watch. Yesterday, his family said they were counting the days until his release.

“It’s bittersweet, but we just want him home,” said his wife, Patti. “We are very grateful to the Parole Board.”

His daughter, Katie, said she hopes her father can participate in her wedding, scheduled for July. “He can walk me down the aisle,” she said. “It kills me to think he couldn’t.”

But parents of Amirault’s sexual abuse victims said they were troubled by his early release and especially, they said, by his steadfast declaration of innocence.

“I would say he’s a threat because, once again, he’s not admitting guilt,” said Paul B. Bennett, whose daughter, Jennifer, was abused by the Amiraults. “You’re putting a dangerous man back out on the streets.”

In the Parole Board’s brief 3-to-0 decision dated Thursday, the board members noted that Amirault’s prison record was good and that he has strong family and community support. “Although Mr. Amirault stands convicted of serious offenses, it appears that justice has been served by his seventeen years of incarceration,” the board wrote.

As a parolee, Amirault must abide by a list of conditions, including requirements that he avoid his victims and that any time spent with victims must be supervised. He must also pass regular alcohol and drug tests and register as a sex offender.

Amirault became eligible for parole this year based on the length of his sentence and submitted a request.

Two years ago, Amirault sought to have his sentence commuted, arguing that it should be reduced because it was longer than the sentences of others convicted of similar crimes. Commuting the sentence would have made him eligible for parole sooner.

At the time, the Parole Board, acting in its dual role as the Advisory Board of Pardons, unanimously recommended that former acting governor Jane Swift commute Amirault’s sentence, noting that it was significantly longer than the sentences of his mother and sister.

The board sparked controversy by questioning whether Amirault received a fair trial, although the board members stressed that they did not consider his guilt or innocence. But Swift rejected the board’s recommendation, saying the sentence was appropriate and in line with others.

Last March, Amirault once again asked the board to recommend that his prison sentence be commuted. This time, however, the board denied his request, because he was just months from being eligible for parole.

While the governor and the Executive Council make the final decision about commuting a sentence, the Parole Board makes the final decision about parole. Yesterday, three members of the board participated in the unanimous decision: Daniel M. Dewey, Joyce Hooley, and John P. Kivlan.

Amirault was the sole remaining family member in prison for the Fells Acres scandal. His mother, Violet, and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, were convicted in 1987 of a combined five counts of rape of a child. They were both released on appeal in 1995, and Violet Amirault died two years later.

In 1999, after several more appeals, prosecutors finally agreed that LeFave should not return to prison in exchange for not profiting from the case and dropping a quest to clear her name. A judge reduced her sentence to the time she already had served, eight years on a sentence of eight to 20 years.

Yesterday, an emotional LeFave said she was looking forward to spending time with her brother at home. LeFave said she had a hard time adjusting to daily life after her release.

“People feel like when they see me, they have to hug me,” she said. “I feel like they get a sense of energy from what I’ve gone through. It’s inspirational.”

Although Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley had opposed Amirault’s parole, her office offered a muted response to yesterday’s announcement.

The conditions of Amirault’s parole should minimize his risk to the community, said Coakley’s spokesman, Seth Horwitz. The office hasn’t yet decided whether to seek to have Amirault civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person, he said. To bring such a case, prosecutors would have to prove in court that Amirault remains dangerous and likely to commit assault.

If Amirault were civilly committed, he would be held at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in the Bridgewater Corrections complex and would have to appeal each year to be released.

Yesterday, Governor Mitt Romney said that he has no authority to challenge the decision to release Amirault. He said he didn’t know enough about the case to discuss the legal details.

“The Parole Board is independent,” Romney said. “I am not going to second-guess their decision.”

But, he added, “There is no crime more disgusting or revolting than a crime against a child.”

Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, the Middlesex district attorney when the case was prosecuted, called the decision to release Amirault “unfortunate.” He was concerned, he said, that the parole decision not be seen as an exoneration of Amirault, whose convictions stand.

“I think we often forget there are a lot of victims out there, people whose lives have been dramatically changed,” he said.

The mother of one of those victims, Barbara Standke, heard the news yesterday morning when a parole officer called her. Her son, Brian Martinello, works construction, and she couldn’t reach him during the day to break the news.

She was resigned to Amirault’s release. “I knew it was going to happen some time,” she said. “If he got out three years from now, 10 years from now, it’s not going to change what happened to my son.”

Globe reporter Sean P. Murphy and Globe correspondents Heather Allen and Martha Bartle contributed to this report.

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