Suzanne Fields

We're focused on war, as we have to be, worried about our casualties and prisoners of war, sympathizing with the millions of innocent Iraqis who have felt the heel of Saddam Hussein on their necks for decades. The newspapers and television talking heads tell us that we're interested in little else.

But we have to consider things closer to home, too, to the little guy ignored in the epic of war. Such a man, the victim of injustice, deserves our attention. His name is Gerald Amirault and to him (as Willy Loman put it) "attention must be paid."

Amirault has been imprisoned since 1986 for sexually molesting nine children in the Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden, Mass. - eight counts of rape and seven counts of indecent assault and battery. Most of the children were reluctant witnesses, spending months denying that anything happened. A girl who said he jammed a knife in her rectum also recalled a robot similar to R2-D2 in "Star Wars" that had bitten her arm. A boy who said Gerald had tied him naked to a tree named other teachers who did the same, a "fact" the prosecutors chose to ignore.

Twenty-two teachers and aides as well as parents who visited the school spontaneously said they never saw anything amiss. This trial has been amply documented as one of the most biased prosecutions in this nation's history.

In her new book, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times [buy book], Dorothy Rabinowitz, investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, argues persuasively that Amirault has not only been imprisoned for crimes he didn't commit, but that the crimes for which he was found guilty  never happened.

The book should be required reading for prosecutors, judges and governors because it's testimony to the way our legal system can be manipulated where the power of suggestion gets in the way of truth, when a crime is so heinous that guilt can be "proved" merely by the accusation.

Prosecutors and politicians who have a vested interest in the outcome of a trial can stir emotions that all but prevent rational discussion. Justice becomes impossible. The Amirault prosecution is in this telling a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials, where denunciation establishes guilt and a plea of innocence is verification of culpability.

Gerald Amirault was convicted when several sensational trials against suspected child abusers garnered headlines across the nation in the '80s and '90s. So preposterous were the imaginations of the little children making the accusations in many of these trials that most of the guilty verdicts were eventually overturned. Gerald Amirault's was not, but so thin was the evidence that when the state parole board reviewed his case it unanimously urged that his sentence be commuted and he be freed.

The Mondale Act of 1979 released huge sums of government money to child protection agencies to investigate charges of child abuse. Many of these were well-intentioned investigations, but money creates self-fulfilling prophecy: the investigators found what they were looking for even when it wasn't there.

Nurses and psychologists who deal with child victims often lead children to say what the inquisitor wants to hear them to say. If the children wouldn't or couldn't substantiate the charges, the "experts" said they were "in denial," too traumatized to speak up. If the accused refused to admit guilt, he, too, was said to be "in denial," and worse, without remorse.

Parents who were suspicious of abuse were told to look for symptoms: bedwetting, nightmares, fighting and loss of appetite, which as every parent knows can be the symptoms of many innocent problems. Once any such symptom emerged, parents joined psychologists in planting fantasies that thrive in a child's imagination. Bert and Ernie dolls with enlarged genitals focused the children's attention. Parents and professionals rewarded the children with smiles of affirmation when they heard what they wanted to hear.

Judges, district attorneys and politicians get scant public praise for saving an innocent person charged with the sex abuse of a child. When the state parole board unanimously recommended the commutation of Gerald Amirault's sentence, Jane Swift, the acting governor of Massachusetts, was in sagging pursuit of survival and the last thing she could afford was more bad press.

She ruled that commutation was "unwarranted." She feared the backlash, an aide said. Defense of the rights of the innocently convicted is never popular, and the defense of the rights of those innocently convicted of abusing children is the least popular of all.

Many heroes populate Dorothy Rabinowitz' story - those who stood up for the accused when it was exceedingly difficult to do so. They understood well the truth of the title of this book, taken from a quote of the Baron de Montesquieu in 1742: "There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice." It's that tyranny that put Gerald Amirault in prison.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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