NEWBURYPORT, Mass. -- Saying it would be "improper" for Violet Amirault and her daughter, Cheryl LeFave Amirault, to spend "even one minute more" in prison, a Superior Court judge yesterday ordered the two women freed eight years after they were imprisoned for child molestation.
"Their conviction is null and void," said Superior Court Judge Robert A. Barton, who on Tuesday ordered a new trial for them after ruling that their constitutional rights had been violated during the first trial.
Mrs. Amirault, 72; her daughter Cheryl, 37; and a son, Gerald, 41, who was tried separately, were convicted of sexually assaulting children at the Fells Acre day-care center in Malden, Mass., which the family operated.
Mrs. Amirault was set free yesterday, while Cheryl Amirault, who is serving a 90-day sentence on a charge that she assaulted a fellow inmate while in prison, could be released today. A hearing was scheduled for this morning.
Judge Barton, conducting a bail hearing, released the woman on personal recognizance, pending trial. He barred them from having contact with witnesses in the case.
Violet Amirault was overcome when she learned of her release, weeping and collapsing into her daughter's arms.
"I never, never, never did it," she said, her shoulders shaking. "It's been such a long, hard battle."
"It's a great triumph," said Patty Amirault, wife of Gerald Amirault, who is serving up to 40 years. He, too, is seeking a new trial.
Martin Murphy, a first assistant district attorney, said he believes the Amiraults received a fair trial when convicted in 1987. "The records show that these people are child molesters," he said.
Middlesex County District Attorney Thomas F. Reilly filed an appeal this week that seeks to overturn Judge Barton's ruling on the new trial.
On Tuesday, Judge Barton ruled that the women should be granted a new trial because the witnesses -- ages 5, 6 and 7 -- who testified against them during their trial testified with their backs to the defendants.
The judge retroactively applied a 1994 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that found the seating arrangement unconstitutional. Prior Judge Barton's decision, the Amiraults were unsuccessful in five appeals.
In a statement, state Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger, who was district attorney at the time of the 1987 trial, said the women were being released on a "technicality" and that he is "shocked" that more stringent conditions were not placed on their release.
The women were serving an eight- to 20-year sentence based on testimony given by children who testified they were inappropriately touched at school in 1984.
Parents of two of the four children who testified in 1987 have said they will not testify a second time, leaving the prosecution with little evidence.
The Amirault case was tried as the country was focused on the McMartin Preschool case in California, which involved charges that dozens of children were molested by their caretakers.