Gerald Amirault once worked with his mother and his sister, Cheryl Amirault Lefave, at the family's day care center in Malden, Mass. All three were charged with molesting children in their care.
The day before his arrest, police had talked with a 5-year-old boy, who had told his uncle that Gerald pulled his pants down. Investigators never interviewed Gerald Amirault before arresting him. If only they had, he says, he could have explained what happened.
"The boy had an accident and wet himself," Gerald says. "I thought nothing of it. Changed the boy. And he was a little embarrassed. He had to take his clothes off. I had to clean him up."
But by the time the trial began 20 months later, nine children had described bizarre sexual acts that were harder to explain. Gerald was found guilty.
Fourteen years later, Gerald is never far from his family's thoughts. But the frequent visits to prison are always an ordeal. It is not the life Gerald and Patti, who were childhood sweethearts, envisioned. They try to stay in touch, and talk once a day.
But they have paid a high price. "It's cost me my whole life," says their daughter Katie. "My dad didn't see me go through high school, he didn't see me, he didn't even see me graduate kindergarten." Gerrilyn and Katie are now on the cusp of adulthood.
Seeing him in prison is tough. "It's the only time that I see my dad," Gerrilyn says. "The only time I see him is for that brief half hour. I can't hug him, I can't, you know, give him high five. I have to look at him through fingerprint-smudged glass."
The Amiraults are still trying to free Gerald. Patti is also sure that her husband, and his mother and sister, are completely innocent.
Patti's attic overflows with legal documents she thinks still could show that children don't always tell the truth. New research by a prominent psychologist has given Patti new hope of proving her family's innocence.
This same evidence has outraged parents of the kids who say they were victims, and confused former jurors. What some of these children told a jury was horrifying: penetration with sticks and pens and wands, oral intercourse, even tying children to trees. Parents and jurors believed these allegations. Many continue to believe them, vehemently.
Now, to keep her freedom, Cheryl has one last chance to prove her case in court. She's depending on expert testimony from psychologist Maggie Bruck, whose research shows how suggestible children can be. Bruck cites her study in which children were interviewed after having a routine medical exam, anatomically correct dolls were used to help the children "remember." The children told interviewers that they had been touched in ways that had not in fact occurred.
Says Bruck: "These data were quite surprising to us. We were srprised that it happened at all, and the number of children who made inaccurate claims about touching when none happened." The problem is not the kids, Bruck says, but the interviewers and their techniques. These techniques, she says, convinced kids that they had experienced things they had not.
But, the prosecutor says, it makes no difference, because children made the same allegations consistently, to police and parents, too.
One young witness sticks to her accusation even today. "There were a lot of young children who were hurt very bad by these people. They were put in jail and that is where they should stay," says the young woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
Says Bruck of the woman: "She's a victim whether it happened or whether it didn't happen, because that's how she's been treated, and she's grown up with this belief." Cheryl denies touching the child, and agrees with Bruck.
When the judge's decision finally comes, it is emphatically in Cheryl's favor: "The evidence in this case is nothing short of overwhelming with improper interviewing techniques," says Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein. "There is more than a substantial risk that the defendant was unjustly convicted."
Cheryl has won the right to a new trial. And the children's' testimony will never be allowed in court again. If the ruling is upheld, that will be the end of her case.
But the Amiraults' battles are far from over. Although Cheryl has won the right to a new trial, prosecutors are appealing the decision. And the family is now trying to get Gerald out of prison. "I've been in jail longer than real child molesters go to jail for," Gerald says.
At least one of the jurors who put him there has second thoughts in the wake of Cheryl's hearing. "It makes me feel bad about putting a man in jail if there are questions about his guilt," says one juror. "For that reason I think I'm in favor of having another investigation, if not trial."
But they can only begin that fight if Cheryl's ruling is upheld.
Through their 15-year ordeal, the Amiraults have never given up hope of being cleared.
Gerald remembers something his mother told prosecutors: "My mother said to them, 'You've taken everything I ever worked for away from me. All I have left is my innocence. I will never give you that'."
Says Gerald: "I just hope and pray that the right thing happens, because I just want to clear my name. I want to clear my mother's name and clear my family's name and go on with my life and go home to my family where I belong."
His wife Patti keeps hoping, and is saving every family memento for his return. "I kept everything," she says. "And so now I have essays they wrote. Little things about their awards at school. I want him to see this. It will jog my memory to tell him about things."
"I'm going to walk out of here some day with my head high and my sense of self still intact," Gerald says. "That's just the way it's going to be."
Part I: The Amiraults' Story || Part II: Still Fighting
Part III: Getting It Right