THIS STATE'S Parole Board is not known for leniency, so its unanimous recommendation Friday that Acting Governor Jane Swift commute the sentence of convicted child rapist Gerald Amirault should carry extra weight. It would be an act of compassion and justice for Swift to approve commutation, which would then be voted on by the Governor's Council.
Swift was still a college student in Connecticut when Amirault, his sister, and mother were convicted in 1986 and 1987 of child rapes at their Malden day-care center. Swift will come to the case without the preconceptions held by the strongest believers in the Amiraults' guilt and in their innocence. She is right to ask her legal advisers for a detailed review before making up her mind.
That review will inevitably provide a history of this country's evolving understanding of the abuse of children by authority figures and how difficult it can be to get children -- young children in particular -- to talk about it. The problem was compounded, until the 1980s, by the reluctance of society as a whole to believe that clergymen, coaches, teachers, or day-care workers would so take advantage of their positions of trust with children.
When it became clear such offenses were occurring, police and prosecutors went to great lengths to find out what had happened to children and then to bring their testimony into court. Interviewing techniques that were used then, in this case and others, have since been set aside, as it became evident their suggestiveness could lead children to fabricate. One child in the Amirault case said he had been tied naked to a tree in front of teachers and forced to watch Amirault's sister, Cheryl LeFave, pull the legs off a squirrel, a story that has never had any corroboration.
The Parole Board said it favored commutation in part because of the discrepancy of the sentences meted out, in different trials, to Amirault and to his sister and mother, Violet Amirault. He was sentenced to 30 to 40 years for eight counts of child rape and seven of indecent assault and battery. The women were sentenced to 8 to 20 years for three rapes in LeFave's case and two in Violet Amirault's. The women successfully appealed their convictions twice, only to have them reinstated by the Supreme Judicial Court. Violet Amirault died in 1997. In 1999, a Supreme Court judge revised LeFave's sentence to time served. She has been out of prison since 1995.
In favoring commutation, three of the five Parole Board members said that, while they did not consider guilt or innocence, "It is clearly a matter of public knowledge that, at the minimum, real and substantial doubt exists concerning [the] petitioner's conviction." Swift can make of that doubt what she wants. But it would be unjust to keep Amirault in prison longer than the 15 years he has served.