Part II: Getting It Right

Alleged Abuse Destroys Amirault Family

Behind the walls of the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, an anguished story is repeated hundreds of times a year: a distraught parent charges sexual abuse. But, did it really happen?

The center's approach to finding out what really happened today is very different from that of the 1980s. Mistakes made then, says Police Lt. Bill Walsh, inspired him to found the center in 1991.

"There were so many cases that were overturned, or we went forward on less than solid evidence," says Walsh.

"There may have been a tendency in the past to be more concerned about the child's feelings, and you know, try to validate what they were saying, and not challenge them when they said things that didn't sound quite possible."

Now, the focus of this center, and at 300 other centers operating around the country, is on the facts.

"When children come here, they've been abused. Families are in crisis. Children are scared," says Cheryl Sutterfield, the center's director.

A young mother has brought her 5-year-old daughter to the center. The girl is first put to ease before one question is asked. Comfort and support are everywhere, from toys to new clothes for the children. The motto here is "One Stop Shopping." Don't drag an upset child around to be interviewed repeatedly. And the police operation is just upstairs.

"It allows us to conduct these investigations in a very coordinated fashion, providing for the needs of not only the investigation, but the child," says Walsh.

And when the time is right, a police detective and a social worker get down to business with the 5-year-old girl, the only witness to the alleged crime. "The interview really forms the cornerstone of the case," says Walsh.

For the actual interview, the child is brought into a special room. There are very few distractions. There is, however, a one-way mirror. And on the other side of that mirror, Det. Arlene Martinez is recording it all and evaluates what the child is saying.

How are the interviewing techniques different today?

"We have to, in a very sensitive way, get the facts out," says Walsh. "Blindly accepting, you know, what children say or having your own agenda and keep working until they say what you think you want to hear -- both of those things, you know, are devastating for the truth."

"In the late '80s, people were talking about 'believe the children,' and I understand where they're coming from," adds Walsh. "But my role here is an investigator. So we can't go on the assumption that every allegation is exactly what it turns out to be."

Female Interrogator: Where were you when he touched your wee-wee?

Child: I was in the hotel room and he pulled my pants down.

Female Interrogator: Do you remember what kind of pants they were?

"She's not leading this child anywhere," says Det. Martinez. "It's all coming from her."

Female Interrogator: Did you have on anything underneath your pants?

Child: Panties. And he took down my panties, too.

Female Interrogator: OK. Did he touch you in any other part of the your body?

Child: (Shakes head no)

Female Interrogator: OK.

Child: Just my wee-wee.

Female Interrogator: Just your wee-wee.

Walsh says that children can be easily suggested, so good questioning "has a lot to do with the quality of the person conducting the interview and their training." "We make it clear here," adds Walsh. "It's a success if they come out of there and nothing happened."

Det. Martinez, however, wants to push for specifics in this case, and has the interrogator ask the girl how old she was when this happened. The girl says she's 5 years old.

"I think she's credible," says Martinez, who adds that the fact that the child can recall details of where the abuse occurred also adds to her credibility. "We still have a lot of investigative work to do. It's not just what this child says. It's going to have to corroborate with a lot of other things."

When a case is brought, Walsh says he gets a conviction 90 percent of the time. But unlike the '80s, these cases usually involve family members -- not ritual abuse with scores of kids.

"We provide therapy. We help children get ready for court. So there's a lot of things that come out of this partnership," says Walsh.

Since 48 Hours last broadcast this story, the little girl returned to the center for therapy, and her father pleaded guilty to public lewdness.

"We need to approach these cases from a neutral standpoint and then apply what you apply in any criminal justice investigation before we start locking people up," says Walsh.

But for the Amiraults, the fight for justice continues.

After years of legal wrangling, Cheryl remains free, but technically, her child molestation conviction stands.

Gerald Amirault was the last of the family members still behind bars. But at least one of the jurors who put him there had second thoughts in the wake of Cheryl's hearing.

"Perhaps the jury was misled, and perhaps we put a man in jail that was innocent," said the juror. "For that reason, I'm in favor of having another investigation, another trial."

In 2001, Gerald, his wife Patti, and their children had hopes that a homecoming was within reach. In an unusual move, the Massachusetts parole board, one of the toughest in the country, voted 5 to 0 to recommend Gerald Amirault's sentence be commuted by the governor – two years before he'd be eligible for parole.

To the family's shock, acting Gov. Jane Swift – who at the time was contemplating a run for office - rejected her parole board's recommendation. Gerald remained in prison.

Now retired, Judge Robert Barton, whose rulings led to freedom for the Amirault women, called the decision a disgrace. "Of the 22 years I was a Superior Court judge, it's the only case I know that I had any part of where someone did not get a fair trial and is doing time," said Judge Barton.

Meanwhile, Gerald continued to miss the milestones in his children's lives. Both daughters now had graduated college. But Patti Amirault said the family's rock-solid belief in Gerald's innocence held them together.

"I choose to fight this because I believe in it," said Patti.

Gerald's only hope was parole, but that could be difficult if it depended on his admitting guilt. "I'm not going to admit to that but then they win. I'm going to win. I'm gonna walk out of here someday with my head high and my sense of self still in tact," he said.

"That's the one thing he still has. He shouldn't be made to say he did something he didn't do," said Patti. "No. I mean, we'll get through whatever many years we need to."

Finally, last April, the Amiraults made their last trip to prison.

Gerald, now 50, is granted parole after 18 years behind bars. He's leaving with his family – and he still maintains his innocence.

"Just seeing his foot come over that threshold, out to freedom was like nothing I ever felt before," says Patti.

After nearly two decades of trying to draw attention to his case, he's now receiving more attention than he bargained for. "All the helicopters, all the media that were there. It was incredible," says Gerald. "They [friends, family] waited a long time for that day. It was a big burden lifted off a lot of people."

With Gerald now free, his friends and supporters can finally celebrate. "It was everything I thought it was going to be and then some, just to see the happiness on my family's faces and my kids' faces," says Gerald.

"The most important thing to know about us is that we're just ordinary people who got caught up in a bad situation in a time of hysteria in this country," says Patti.

One month later, Gerald is settling into family life. He earned a college degree in prison, and he's planning on taking a job soon. But for now, he's totally occupied with his family.

And Patti? "She raised our children, had two or three jobs at times, had to deal with this case," says Gerald. "There is no better person on this earth than my wife. She's a special person."

"Amazingly, its like it always was," adds Patti. "It's like he was never away."

But the cost of his long absence has been difficult for the family. "When I look at photos and I think of all he's missed and all we missed because he wasn't here, it's incredibly frustrating," says Patti. "But we'll make memories now and do good things together."

Cheryl Amirault LeFave has been out of prison since 1995. But she says she didn't truly feel free until her brother was released. "I didn't realize that until the day he came home when all of a sudden this burden seemed to lift," says Cheryl. "Life is so good right now."

There is good news in the family. Gerald's daughter, Katie, is getting married.

Two months after Gerald's homecoming, his children, Gerrilyn and Katie still get a kick out of seeing their parents together. "My parents are hysterical," says Katie. "They're like so in love it's ridiculous."

Last year, when Katie got engaged, she made a promise. She told Gerald that she wasn't going to walk down the aisle without him. She got to keep her promise. On July 31, after 18 years of missed milestones, Gerald escorted his daughter down the aisle.

Although Gerald Amirault is enjoying his freedom, his conviction stands, and by law, he has to be a registered sex offender.

He earned a college degree in prison, but his lawyer says that finding work has been extremely difficult. Even supporters who believe that Gerald is innocent have been reluctant to hire him, fearing a backlash.

Next month, it will be 20 years since the charges against the Amirault family first came to light. And while Gerald remains intent on clearing the family name, his focus for now is on resuming a normal life.

Part I: A Family Accused