BOSTON — Gerald “Tooky” Amirault, convicted of raping eight children in one of the nation’s most lurid — and bitterly disputed — child abuse cases, has been granted parole and could go free next spring after nearly two decades in prison.
Amirault, 49, who was convicted in 1986 of molesting and raping the children at the family-run Fells Acres day care center in Malden, will not be released until at least April 2004, said Sgt. Edward Principe, a spokesman for the state Public Safety Department.
“It’s been a long, long time. It’s been very difficult, but his innocence is what gave us strength to fight this through many battles,” Amirault’s wife, Patti, said at a news conference. “It’s time to put this whole thing to rest for both sides and let everyone get on with their lives.”
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Asked what she would say to people who still doubt her husband’s innocence, she said, “I don’t say anything. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. We know the truth and we leave it at that.”
Amirault’s sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, and his late mother, Violet Amirault, were convicted in a separate trial. The case came to symbolize changing attitudes toward the mass prosecution of child sex abuse cases.
Amirault was given a 30- to 40-year sentence. The state Board of Pardons recommended in July 2001 that his sentence be commuted, but then-acting Gov. Jane Swift rejected the recommendation in February 2002.
“I knew it was going to come someday,” said Barbara Standke, 47, of Tewksbury, whose son, Brian Martinello, was one of the victims. “The parole officer told me he would have to stay away from children, and at this point I guess that’s all we can ask for. But it’s not going to help my son any.”
In its decision, dated Thursday, the parole board noted that Amirault has already served a lengthy prison term, has strong support from his family and the community, and a minimal prior criminal history.
“Although Mr. Amirault stands convicted of serious offenses, it appears that justice has been served by his seventeen years of incarceration,” the board said in its written decision.
Under the board’s decision, the earliest Amirault could be released is April 30.
“After all these years, he needs to be home with his wife and children,” said his attorney, Jamie Sultan. “We’ve made a giant step in that direction today.”
As required by law, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley has six months to decide whether to file a petition seeking Amirault’s civil commitment as a sexually dangerous person. Spokeswoman Emily LaGrassa said planned to review his prison records before making that decision.
“It’s not a question of continued punishment for his past conviction,” she said. “It’s a question of whether or not he’s a dangerous person in the future.”
LaGrassa also said Coakley had submitted a letter to the board arguing against Amirault’s parole.
“We’re disappointed,” she said, “but it’s the parole board’s decision to make.”
Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who was Middlesex DA when the case was prosecuted, said he was disappointed but respected the parole board’s role as an independent body.
“My concern, however, remains with the victims, the many victims, who I hope can also handle and understand that this is not in any way an exoneration,” Harshbarger said.
Gov. Mitt Romney said he had no power to change the parole board’s decision.
“I can only hope that those who reviewed this case thoroughly … have used that information properly, effectively, and come to the right decision,” Romney said.
LeFave and Violet Amirault were freed in 1995 on appeal after claiming they were denied the right to confront their child accusers. Violet Amirault died in 1997, nearly two years before the Supreme Judicial Court reinstated her conviction.
In 1998, Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein ordered another trial for LeFave, saying new research showed prosecutors’ suggestive and leading interview techniques made it impossible to tell if the children, by then teenagers, were telling the truth.
The children had testified that Violet slaughtered bluebirds, cut the leg off a squirrel and tied a naked boy to a tree in front of the school while all the teachers and children watched. That evidence was never corroborated.
After several more appeals, LeFave was released permanently in 1999 when the state did not oppose a motion to have her sentence reduced.
A number of mass child abuse convictions from the 1980s have been overturned; the Little Rascals day care center in Edenton, N.C., and the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles were among the most notorious.
The Amiraults said they were victims of sex abuse hysteria that swept the country in the 1980s and questionable testimony from child witnesses.
A juror in the Fells Acres case once wrote to the parole board, saying he was convinced that Gerald Amirault was innocent. “I think my jury was misled and did not hear all the evidence.”
After the parole board recommended Gerald Amirault’s commutation, the victims, now adults, identified themselves for the first time and stood by their testimony.
“This family raped me, molested me and totally ruined my life,” said Jennifer Bennett, who was 3 1/2 years old when she started attending Fells Acres.
The families of the eight children who testified in the child abuse cases and eight who did not were awarded $20 million in civil settlements.