IN A STUNNING REVERSAL of a controversial policy recommendation, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday withdrew his recommendation to pardon Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, who were convicted in a high-profile child sexual abuse case in the 1980s. 

“Following yesterday’s hearing, it is apparent that there are not sufficient votes from the Governor’s Council to support a pardon for the Amiraults. Therefore, the governor is withdrawing his pardon petition,” Baker’s press secretary Terry MacCormack said in a statement. 

Amirault and LeFave were convicted of sexually abusing children at Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden in the 1980s. The 1984 case has long raised questions about the integrity of the convictions, and the Amirault family has always maintained their innocence. Their supporters argue that the testimony of children, which formed the backbone of the case, was coerced by improper interviewing techniques. But after years of litigation, including two trials and six Supreme Judicial Court rulings, the courts upheld their convictions. 

Baker recommended the pardons against the advice of the Advisory Board of Pardons, which declined to give both Amirault and LeFave pardon hearings. In recommending the pardons, Baker wrote that the prosecutions “took place without the benefit of scientific studies that have in the intervening years led to widespread adoption of investigative protocols designed to protect objectivity and reliability in the investigation of child sex abuse cases.” Baker said that, like many others who reviewed the case, he was “left with grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions.”   

But the Governor’s Council must confirm any pardon recommendation before it can take effect, and at a public hearing on Tuesday, more than half of the eight councilors expressed grave doubts about Baker’s recommendations. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito can break a tie in favor of the governor, but if five councilors vote against the governor, a pardon will not pass.  

At Tuesday’s hearing, councilors Marilyn Devaney and Chris Iannella both made clear that they would vote against a pardon. Devaney said she knew a child who was molested at Fells Acres, and she urged fellow councilors to vote no. Iannella pledged to stand up for the victims and said he would not contradict the Board of Pardons. 

Councilor Eileen Duff said she does not believe the Amiraults are eligible for a pardon because they did not admit guilt. The governor’s clemency guidelines say a pardon is not intended as a review of court proceedings or guilt, and the governor will “rarely” grant clemency to a petitioner who has not accepted responsibility.  

Councilor Paul DePalo criticized Baker for providing no rationale for the pardon, other than a paragraph in a press release questioning the trial’s evidentiary findings – which are not supposed to be considered in a pardon hearing, according to the governor’s own clemency guidelines.  

Councilor Mary Hurley also raised concerns about opposing the Advisory Board of Pardons.  

Councilor Terrence Kennedy blamed the Amirault’s attorney for using the hearing to relitigate the case, telling him, “I think you missed your mark.” 

Amirault will be released from strict parole conditions in another year. But both LeFave and Amirault will continue to have to register as sex offenders in the absence of a pardon. 

Baker’s statement did not address any of the concerns raised by the governor’s councilors.  

The sudden reversal by Baker marked a rare display of serious political misjudgment by a governor who has made carefully calibrated moves a hallmark of his tenure.

Boston Globe editorial published Wednesday morning, before Baker withdrew the recommendations, called the pardons a “legitimate choice,” as long as they are not equated with exoneration, but it nonetheless ripped the governor for the way he dealt with the case – singling out his failure to explain his reasoning in any detail or notify victims ahead of time. “Baker’s handling of this pardon, in particular the failure to communicate with the victims, is a blot on his last days in office,” the paper said.