Martha Coakley’s Chappaquiddick

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee to replace Senator Ted Kennedy, ought to have a lock on the January 19th special election, considering that Massachusetts is a state that nearly always votes for a Democrat and that the Boston Herald reports1 that the RNC has decided to let her opponent fend for himself. Yet the latest polling2 shows Coakley only 9 points ahead, with a margin of error exactly equal to the spread between the two candidates. Perhaps the short attention span of the electorate is simply an over-hyped myth, and voters who remember Coakley’s actions in the case of Gerald Amirault feel that they call into question her fitness for the job. The Amirault name may well be Coakley’s albatross much as Chappaquiddick was Kennedy’s. But Coakley’s albatross and Kennedy’s are hardly birds of a feather.

The Chappaquiddick accident that took Mary Jo Kopechne’s life was just that – a tragic accident.3 In contrast, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s campaign to keep a falsely convicted man behind bars was intentional and politically motivated.

In the late 1970s, people uncomfortable with the increasing number of women in the workforce tried to guilt them into staying home by planting doubt about the safety of daycare centers. By the 1980s, this had turned into full-blown hysteria, with accusations of toddlers subjected to sexual abuse and satanic rituals. Prosecutors and supposed child experts nationwide fanned the hysteria, seeking to build their careers on the backs of the innocent. McMartin in L.A., Wee Care in N.J., Little Rascals in N.C., and Fells Acres in Mass. are the most notorious cases. Where prosecutors told jurors “believe the children,” the child abuse “experts” they brought in to interview the children refused to believe the children unless they made outrageous accusations.

Scott Harshbarger who prosecuted the Amiraults, owners of Fells Acres, parlayed the resulting fame into a successful run for the office of Massachusetts Attorney General.

Pediatric nurse Susan Kelley’s never-take-no-for-an-answer interview techniques elicited claims from Fells Acres children that:

   1. a four year old boy was anally raped with a butcher knife that miraculously left no injury,
   2. a young girl was bitten by a green and yellow and silver “Star Wars” robot,
   3. a young boy was tied naked to a tree in the schoolyard, in front of all the teachers and children and in full view of passing traffic, while Cheryl cut the leg off a squirrel.

Even though the prosecution produced no physical evidence that the children’s stories were anything more than fantasies created under pressure from a sex-abuse obsessed interviewer, Gerald Amirault was sentenced to a 30 to 40 year prison term. His sister Cheryl and their mother Violet were sentenced to 8 to 20 years.

In a subsequent appeal, Judge Isaac Borenstein commented4 on Susan Kelley’s ceaseless badgering of the children: “This interviewer was so biased that she engaged in an investigation not to learn what really happened, but to make sure that the Amiraults were convicted.” Nevertheless, Kelley used the case as her Ph.D. thesis topic5 and went on to a successful career at Georgia State University where she now serves as Dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Justice Charles Fried of the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court, whose understanding of the U.S. Constitution is so flawed that he rejected the Amiraults’ appeal6 on the basis that the most important thing for the court is “finality” of the decision, now holds the exalted post of Harvard Law School professor where he teaches, of all things, constitutional law!

After 8 years of appeals, Judge Robert A. Barton overturned the women’s conviction, but Gerald having been convicted in a separate trial remained in prison.

It seems the convictions were a win-win for everyone, except of course the Amiraults. Massachusetts’ abominable treatment of the Amirault family was chronicled by Dorothy Rabinowitz in her Pulitzer-prize winning series of Wall Street Journal articles “A Darkness In Massachusetts.”7 Unfortunately, Rabinowitz’ chronicle ends in July 2001, when the Massachusetts Governor’s Advisory Board, one of the toughest parole boards in the country, voted unanimously to commute Gerald Amirault’s sentence, stating that “real and substantial doubt exists concerning petitioner’s conviction.”

And that’s where ambition-driven District Attorney Martha Coakley enters the picture. By 2001, no person with two brain cells to rub together believed that the prosecution of the Amiraults was anything other than a travesty of justice. But Coakley, placing more value on defending the infallibility of her office and on appearing tough on crime than on seeing that injustice be rectified, embarked on a public-relations crusade to keep Gerald Amirault behind bars. As a result, Gerald languished in prison for another three years.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Gerald Amirault was finally paroled. If Coakley truly believed Gerald Amirault was guilty of sexually abusing children, then her decision not to have him classified as a sexually dangerous person shows absolute disregard for the welfare of the community. More likely, she chose not to have him classified as sexually dangerous because that would have required a hearing which would have been an embarrassment for the D.A.’s office. Revisiting the original accusations in a less hysterical era would have brought unwelcome media attention to the fact that her office was guilty of causing the imprisonment of a plainly innocent man for nearly two decades!

The citizens of Mass. saw fit to forgive Teddy Kennedy for a tragic accident, and he repaid them by zealously fighting for the average citizen throughout his career. In the upcoming election, the citizens of Massachusetts need to send a message loud and clear that Martha Coakley may well be heir to the legacy of Mike Nifong, but she’s no Teddy Kennedy!

On election day, many dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who can’t stomach the idea of elevating someone with Coakley’s lack of scruples to the U.S. Senate may feel there is no way for them to make their opinions heard and instead choose not to vote at all. That would be a mistake because there is a way for voters to express their distaste for the D.A.’s behavior. Massachusetts ballots allow write-in candidates. Even a small number of write-in votes for “Gerald Amirault” will send a powerful message – that the voters will neither forget nor forgive a prosecutor who campaigned to keep an innocent man in jail in order to further her own political career.

  1. Chabot, Hillary, GOP lets Scott Brown fend for himself, Boston Herald, December 29, 2009. []
  2. Rasmussen Reports, Election 2010: Massachusetts Special Senate Election, January 05, 2010. []
  3. Ayton, Mel, The Bridge at Chappaquiddick, Crime Magazine, October 17, 2005. []
  4. Decision of Judge Isaac Borenstein of Middlesex Superior Court granting Cheryl Amirault LeFave a new trial in the Fells Acres day-care abuse case, 12 June 1998. []
  5. Kelley, Susan J., Responses of children and parents to sexual abuse and Satanic ritualistic abuse in day care centers, 1988. []
  6. Silverglate, Harvey, State Court Bench Loses One of Its Best, Boston Phoenix, June 11, 2008. []
  7. Rabinowitz, Dorothy, Justice at Last, Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2001. []
Mark Rosenthal considers himself a "traditional liberal" -- i.e., one who believes firmly in the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. To quote Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Read other articles by Mark.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. dano said on January 12th, 2010 at 11:21am #

    As far as I’m concerned, let the Repubs permanently teabag Coakley. Though I’ve voted democratic my whole life, I cannot abide such malicious conduct.

  2. stopchildabuse said on January 13th, 2010 at 3:40pm #

    This story is incredibly biased and only tells one side of the story, that of the convicted child molester. Amirault was found guilty by democrats and republicans after trials and judicial reviews years apart. His victims have continued to state as adults they were abused as children. The children exhibit severe sexual behaviors after the abuse and there were physical findings that corroborated their stories. Nine children testified in the trial. Terrified children will believe anything the abuser tells them, like the statements above. There was no badgering of the children, this is a myth. There was no hysteria, only those working to defend children against child abusers. In McMartin, the the majority of the jurors believed the children were abused.
    Stop picking on Coakley and stop defending convicted child abusers.

    For information on the case: http://eassurvey.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/fells-acres-%E2%80%93-amirault-case/

  3. stopchildabuse said on January 13th, 2010 at 6:42pm #

    I was very surprised to see this article in Dissident Voice. DV is written to challenge “the distortions and lies of the corporate press and the privileged classes. ” Yet this article by its unfair presentation of the topic supports those in the billion dollar pedophilia industry.

    This article misrepresents the entire debate of those that fought child abuse in the 1980’s, which was a movement that sprung out of the liberation movements of women, etc. For the first time in history, child rape was being exposed and prosecuted. Unfortunately, there was a backlash, which this article contributes to, where society was told not to believe the children but to believe the pedophiles instead when they denied their crimes. This denial hid behind “the children are lying” or “someone told them to say that.” It did not matter how much evidence was found to back up the children’s stories, the lies were repeated that the children were not abused. Those that fought for the children were repeatedly harassed.

    McMartin was the most famous example of this phenomenon of spinning a case so that it looked like the children were lying. In McMartin, tunnels were found that backed up the children’s stories. In both trials, there were hung juries. Most of the jury believed the children were abused. There were physical symptoms of abuse in many of the children at McMartin.
    This was a hard fought case and to simply rewrite it as “hysteria” does a grave injustice to the children abused and rewrites history inaccurately. For more information on the McMartin case, see : http://ritualabuse.us/ritualabuse/articles/mcmartin-preschool-case-what-really-happened-and-the-coverup/

    There is no evidence that Kelley elicited claims from the children. The author above presents one website with questionable accuracy that cherry picks quotes to back up this claim. The reality is that children can be terrified by an abuser to think anything, including that a knife is being used to rape them when they are being raped by something else. There were physical findings of abuse in many of the children and the children expressed highly abnormal sexual behaviors after being abused. The case had judicial review from several courts and both political parties and they came to the same conclusion, that he was guilty. The “travesty of justice” is how this article was written from a one-sided perspective to cover for a convicted child abuser, misrepresenting a variety of facts about the case.

    We can either believe the children, or believe the pedophiles. I choose to believe the children.

  4. stopchildabuse said on January 13th, 2010 at 6:44pm #

    Mass. Victims Fight Commutation Plea By Leslie Miller, AP 8/7/01 Victims urged her to keep Amirault in prison….`So many times, Mr. Amirault hovered over me, touched me and hurt me and committed many disgusting acts of abuse.” ….“This family raped me, molested me and totally ruined my life,” said Jennifer Bennett, who was 31/2 years old when she started at Fells Acres.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20010807011330/http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20010802/us/preschool_abuse_3.html

    Swift won’t free Tooky by David R. Guarino and Elisabeth J. Beardsley Boston Herald 2/20/02 “denied commutation of his sentence by acting Gov. Jane M. Swift….”She carefully analyzed every bit of information generated through the investigation and came to her decision that the verdict was just and the sentence was appropriate,” http://web.archive.org/web/20020305205020/http://www2.bostonherald.com/news/local_regional/swif02202002.htm

    Witness praises Amirault decision By John Ellement, Globe Staff, 2/23/02
    Amirault supporters are focusing on 2 percent of the children’s claims that “seem inexplicable and they are conveniently ignoring the 98 percent of the case that was overwhelming” against Amirault.” http://web.archive.org/web/20020224045327/http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/054/metro/Witness_praises_Amirault_decision+.shtml

    Letters to the Editor: The Real Darkness Is Child Abuse
    Wall Street Journal 02/24/95 (Hardoon’s reply to Rabinowitz’ article)
    The three Amiraults — Gerald, Violet and Cheryl – were convicted after two trials before different judges and juries almost one year apart. They were represented by able and well-known defense counsel….in Amirault, the majority of the female children who testified had some relevant physical findings…The findings included labial adhesions and hymenal scarring http://web.archive.org/web/20010719201703/http://www.vocal-nasvo.org/hardoon.htm

  5. lichen said on January 13th, 2010 at 7:58pm #

    I agree with believing the children 100%, and I also dislike the rhetorical claim made by the author here that the plainly obvious–that children can be mistreated at daycare centers–is somehow an attack on the ability of women to work. The push for children’s rights, beyond just being protected from illicit sexual abuse from outside the family, but also from violence/corporal punishment and emotional abuse within, is a genuine movement, and that some women would feel threatened by it and put up a feminist defense is quite telling about who they are as a person.

    Which is not to say that I agree with prisons as a method of social change–I don’t.

  6. NoMoreNifongs said on January 14th, 2010 at 3:10am #

    As usual, the spinmeisters are at it.

    Since “Lichen” agrees with believing the children 100%, that means Lichen must believe it credible that a young boy was tied naked to a tree in the schoolyard, in front of all the teachers and children and in full view of passing traffic and nobody noticed! So much for Lichen’s credibility.

    As for “stopchildabuse”, that poster has provided lots of links to articles that prove nothing. The articles only show that: 1) prosecutors will say anything rather than admit a mistake, and 2) children whose minds were messed with by prosecutors and an unprofessional pediatric nurse will forever believe what the authorities cajoled them to say back then. The ease with which false memories can be implanted, even in adults, has been well documented by scientific researchers. In impressionable young children, it’s that much easier. The fact that the now-grown children cling tenaciously to these beliefs makes perfect sense if you understand the well-known psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. People whose beliefs have been contradicted by facts display the counterintuitive response of holding even tighter to those beliefs.

    The most convincing evidence that these witch-hunt cases (McMartin, Wee Care, Fells Acres, Wenatchee, etc.) were the result of badly flawed investigation and prosecution is that these cases were all clustered within the same few years. Since procedures have been put into place to stop investigators from using the coercive and hysteria-inducing techniques that were used in these cases, there have been no more daycare sex abuse and Satanic worship cases.

  7. dano said on January 14th, 2010 at 5:42am #

    Reading some of the posts, perhaps we should do away with trials altogether — a mere accusation (especially from a well-coached 3 year old!) should suffice for a conviction — and don’t forget to throw away the key!

    The social workers and prosecutors who conjure up these phony tales then get to pose as heroes for protecting our beloved children from evil, mean sex maniacs. We owe a similar debt of gratitude to Bush/Chaney for protecting us against Saddam’ nuclear weapons, and to the Reagan administration for staving off invasions of the USA by Grenada and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

  8. lichen said on January 14th, 2010 at 3:02pm #

    Yes, the typical attitude in most places is to condescend and brush aside anything that children say: “Don’t you dare say that about your father/mother/brother” many a parent has said in a voice shaking with anger, while the little child has had to retreat inside, never again bring up sexual and physical abuse perpetrated upon them. It is the conservative, right wing scum, family-first perspective. And no, actually, if an adult exhibits clear signs of childhood trauma and the effects of abuse, it is because it really happened. If you want to talk about a crime that affects many women and men and children, it would be the ‘false memory’ argument.

    This sort of abuse is prevalent in the world, and primarily because we don’t recognize children’s rights and take them and their emotions, their experiences seriously.

  9. stopchildabuse said on January 14th, 2010 at 7:34pm #

    It is well known that pedophiles will regularly deny their crimes.

    We can believe that doctors that found physical findings of abuse, children with tremendous courage that discuss their abuse, legal personnel over the years from both political parties that supported the guilty verdict, parents that clearly saw the extremely sexualized behaviors after the abuse and the juries that found the Amiraults guilty

    or

    we can believe those that committed the crimes of child abuse.

    If the children were “brainwashed” by now this would have long worn off.
    The concept of cognitive dissonance of the social pressure put on these abused children (now adults) would long ago have caused them to deny these crimes occurred. Yet this has not happened. They still know years later that they were abused.

    The calling these cases “witch hunts” is the use of propaganda, using a false analogy. These cases are entirely different. There were physical findings and testimony from several parties supporting the guilty verdicts.

    It has never been proven that it is possible to produce a false memory of abuse in a person. And false allegations of abuse from children are rare.
    There have been more cases of day care and satanic abuse cases like the recent Hammond, LA case. There are less however due to the attacks on childrens’ credibility, which is unfortunate. This means that children are more open to being abused without recourse.

    We can believe the children, or we can believe the pedophiles.

    How often do children’s reports of abuse turn out to be false? Research has consistently shown that false allegations of child sexual abuse by children are rare. Jones and McGraw examined 576 consecutive referrals of child sexual abuse to the Denver Department of Social Services, and categorized the reports as either reliable or fictitious. In only 1% of the total cases were children judged to have advanced a fictitious allegation. Jones, D. P. H., and J. M. McGraw: Reliable and Fictitious Accounts of Sexual Abuse to Children. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 27-45, 1987. In a more recent study, investigators reviewed case notes of all child sexual abuse reports to the Denver Department of Social Services over 12 months. Of the 551 cases reviewed, there were only 14 (2.5%) instances of erroneous concerns about abuse emanating from children. http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/csa-acc.html

  10. NoMoreNifongs said on January 15th, 2010 at 12:45pm #

    “stopchildabuse” demonstrates a total lack of comprehension of the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance” when he writes, “The concept of cognitive dissonance of the social pressure put on these abused children (now adults) would long ago have caused them to deny these crimes occurred. Yet this has not happened. They still know years later that they were abused.”

    The concept of “cognitive dissonance” explains the phenomenon that when people’s beliefs are proven to be false, instead of accepting the evidence, they cling even tighter to their false beliefs. The Millerite movement is the classic example of this. Miller predicted the world would end on October 22, 1844. His followers sold all their property and possessions. Yet when October 23, 1844 arrived, indisputably disproving the end of the world on October 22, instead of admitting they were wrong, they looked for an alternative explanation. Some thought Miller’s math was off. Some came up with a theory that the entrance to Heaven was shut. But they clung tightly to their beliefs in the face of clear evidence that they were wrong, and many spent the rest of their lives proselytizing. As a matter of fact, the Seventh Day Adventists developed from this movement.

    So cognitive dissonance is not something that disappears after years, as the writer suggests would have happened to the children by now. Instead it explains why the children who accused Amirault continue to be so adamant in their insistence that things happened which are physically impossible.

  11. lichen said on January 15th, 2010 at 2:11pm #

    NoMoreNifongs is steadfast in their hateful brushing aside of the rights, experiences, and innate intelligence of children. They are entirely victim-blaming, and desiring to distort and shame the experiences of people who have suffered abuse. One can see similar people in the catholic church denying the claims of the choir boys who were raped and physically abused.

  12. stopchildabuse said on January 15th, 2010 at 10:51pm #

    Cognitive dissonance is defined as “This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.” “Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
    * Change our behavior.
    * Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
    * Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.”
    http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/cognitive_dissonance.htm

    In other words, one will relieve the pressure by changing their cognition and one is unlikely to hold on to the old cognition due to pressure.

    Three year olds being raped by pedophiles is not physically impossible. A six inch knife to three year old may look much larger or they may be easily fooled under pressure into thinking another object was a knife. This is used by the perpetrators to discredit the children.

    We can believe the children, or we can believe the pedophiles.