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"12 years, your honor'

This article was reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal.

On the morning of March 26, promptly at 11, former Miami police officer Grant Snowden strode through the doors of the sprawling U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, surrounded by federal marshals and state guards. As he came into view, the crowd of family members and friends pacing outside Courtroom 10 surged forward, his youngest brother clenching hands to his temple, his sister calling his name. Looking straight ahead, the prisoner joined his voice to the marshals ordering everyone to stand back, a direction the family at once obeyed. Eyes fixed on the procession sweeping past, they stood clumped together, breathless simply at the sight of their brother, their son and their father, out in the world again, for however short a time.

The last time Grant Snowden appeared in a courtroom was in April 1986, just after the Dade County state attorney's office had succeeded, after long effort, in winning a conviction against him on child sex assault charges. That April day, the trial judge asked if he had anything he wished to say. He had, and what he had to say was brief. "You are fixing to sentence an innocent man," he told Judge Amy Lee Donner, before she sentenced him to five life terms.

In the years since, the state courts had refused all his appeals, notwithstanding the ample record of fantastic efforts to get children to say Grant had molested them _ and notwithstanding, either, the lack of evidence that any such crime had been committed. Finally, this February, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction _ a decision the state announced it would fight all the way. Further, Assistant Attorney General Michael Neimand declared, his office would strenuously oppose any effort to release the prisoner on bail _ although, he assured New York attorney Robert Rosenthal, who argued the successful appeal, his office had nothing personal against Snowden.

Whether the state's attorneys would succeed in the effort to keep Snowden in prison while they appealed the 11th Circuit's decision or whether the judge would defer a decision on bail _ as many prognosticators guessed he would _ was the question before the court on March 26. And the answer was not long in coming. Shortly after the crowd filed into the courtroom, it became clear that things would not be going the state's way. Flanked by Rosenthal, who made the argument for bail, and his Florida lawyer, Arthur Cohen, Snowden sat and listened, along with everyone else, as the assistant attorney general instructed the judge in the reasons this court had no authority to grant bail. Judge William C. Turnoff listened affably as Neimand expatiated on his argument _ after which the judge addressed Grant Snowden.

He had never been convicted of any crime before these charges had come along, had he? asked the judge, who was well versed in the facts of this case. He had not. And how long had he spent in prison? the judge asked.

"Twelve years, your honor."

The question struck a nerve, as did the answer. Up near the magistrate's bench, tears gleamed in the eyes of a court attendant _ not the only one in the room in this condition. In short order the judge granted bail ($50,000, secured by family property) and set some standard restrictions governing travel and curfew. Next came the question of what additional restrictions the state wanted the judge to impose on Snowden, a question the assistant attorney general seemed unprepared to answer _ though in due course the state did rise to ask for one urgent stricture. Namely that Snowden be prohibited from talking to the press and television people when released _ a request that caused spectators to turn and stare at one another.

Judge Turnoff dryly informed the assistant attorney general that he didn't think this encroachment on First Amendment rights would be quite in order. The hearing over, a moderate bedlam followed as relatives embraced or raced for phones, then settled down to wait for the lawyers to bring Grant out.

Grant Snowden was one of six children born to a struggling mother _ children who had brought one another up in a hardscrabble early life, who had watched over each other and forged inseparable bonds. With the first charges, the pursuit by then-Dade County prosecutor Janet Reno's office and the sentence had come the agony that had settled on all their lives _ lives, like those of Fells Acres Day School defendant Gerald Amirault's family in Massachusetts, lived under an unrelenting weight, though seemingly normal.

Shortly after Grant was first taken off to prison, his grief-maddened brother Terry took a plane to New York, a city in which he had never set foot. Impelled by a force barely comprehensible to him, the 35-year-old Floridian wandered the midtown streets till he found the CBS building. Somehow he managed to make his way to the CBS cafeteria, where he found, miraculously, someone from 60 Minutes _ exactly who he was looking for. Descending on Ed Bradley, he babbled the rough details of the story, offering to deliver any documents and proof needed. Nothing would come of this encounter, Terry quickly learned, as nothing would come of any lawyers' efforts over the years. Nothing, that is, until this day.

An hour after the court session ended, the released prisoner and his lawyers came walking through the door. All that remained now was a trip to the holding center for final paperwork. A dozen years earlier, the once-honored police officer had been marched into the Lake Butler reception center, where he had been forced to walk naked to his isolation cell, a cardboard box of possessions clasped before him: Now he stepped into the bright glare of a Miami day. On the courthouse steps, press photographers took pictures of the freed man: lean, with a still-quick smile and auburn hair, as his prison ID described it; an attractive 51 all told, even in the shambling suit someone had thought to bring on the chance things turned out as they did.

A man away 12 years had much to catch up with. During the drive to the holding center, the phones rang incessantly. How, he marveled in the midst of the excitement, could a portable phone have the range to reach New York?

At his mother's house, finally, everyone gathered, a festive assemblage in which Snowden's small grandchildren and nieces and nephews swarmed around talking as though he had been around every day of their lives. Swarming around, too, were members of the press. The assistant attorney general's worries about all the news this story would make were now about to be borne out, as television reporters crowded the living room, preparing broadcasts on the long-forgotten Snowden case.

When prosecutors answer challenges to these once headline-making cases, they invariably make the same argument: The jury heard all the testimony and arguments, the jury had spoken, and that should be the end of it. But the jury had little idea of the way the prosecutors had come by the testimony dredged from 4- and 5-year-olds by zealots flashing their naked dolls, by the let's-pretend games and bribes, the lies and wheedling about how other children had helped everyone by telling the yucky secrets.

Nor could defense lawyers raising such matters at trial have a chance against the reigning certitude, pounded home by prosecutors' sex-abuse experts, that little children don't lie about sex and would never be capable of making up stories about bad touches and the more grotesque sexual detail about what Grant, or Gerald or Violet or Cheryl Amirault, was supposed to have done, if it had not been part of their experience. The jurors could not know, of course, that the children's suddenly rich vocabulary of sex reference, their talk about bums, pee-pees and secret rooms with naked clowns, began only after the investigators went to work on them with their interrogations.

Convicted on such testimony from children, the doomed went off to their prisons and there the prosecutors are determined they must stay, though the truth about these cases and their manufactured evidence is no longer news. In Miami, Rosenthal, who handled Snowden's appeal, recalls the conversation in which Assistant Attorney General Neimand informed him that his office would do all in its power to undo the circuit court's decision _ and that this had nothing to do with the merits of the case or Snowden's guilt or innocence. Asked if there was anyone in the office of the Florida attorney general, Robert Butterworth, or of the Dade County state attorney, Katherine Rundell, who might be concerned with the question of truth and justice in this prosecution, Neimand explained, again, that this was not the issue. And that further, the attorney general and the state attorney were elected officials; as such they had a duty to do the people's bidding. (Neimand did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.)

In Massachusetts, Gerald Amirault remains in prison, where he has been since 1986, while his sister Cheryl faces reimprisonment, if the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts so rules. The legal struggle in both cases is now at the final, crucial pass _ a problem, given the fact that the Amiraults' legal defense fund is entirely depleted.

The prosecutors' passion to hold on to their convictions is, of course, never depleted, as these cases so eloquently testify. In 1995, Superior Court Judge Robert A. Barton overturned the convictions of Cheryl Amirault and her mother, Violet, freeing them from Framingham prison, where they had served eight years. Gerald Amirault was not so fortunate, his appeal for reversal having come before Judge Elizabeth Dolan, who had presided over his much-publicized trial and won plaudits for devising special seating arrangements for child witnesses _ the pinnacle of her career, by all accounts. Dolan was not likely to second-guess herself, or anything else in this important event. Two years later, the Supreme Judicial Court reinstated Violet's and Cheryl's convictions. Matters now became complicated as _ just before the women were to go back to prison _ their convictions were again overturned, this time by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein.

In February _ the Supreme Judicial Court having agreed to defer ruling on the prosecutor's appeal of this second reversal _ the Amiraults' lawyers, Daniel R. Williams and James Sultan, presented two days of detailed exhibition of the methods the commonwealth's investigators used to gather testimony from children. This extraordinarily colorful hearing before Judge Borenstein _ who will be filing his findings with the Supreme Judicial Court _ concerned only the child witnesses against Cheryl (Violet having died last fall). The testimony in her case, of course, was exactly the same as in Gerald's trial, which means that whatever results emerge from these proceedings must certainly affect him as well.

The prosecutors' leading interviewer was Susan Kelley, whose devoted efforts to obtain disclosures are well known to anyone acquainted with the records. Of her many interrogations _ every connoisseur of the case has, of course his own favorite _ none, perhaps, is more characteristic of the prosecutors' search for truth than the one involving the "elephant game." Having heard that a child _ otherwise not forthcoming with details about abuse _ had mentioned an elephant game at home, the interviewer proceeded to the hunt, evidently with visions of disclosures about Gerald Amirault, or perhaps Violet, in costume molesting children.

"Was this a real elephant or somebody dressed up as an elephant?" Kelley asked the child.

Child: Somebody dressed up.

Kelley: Was it a man or lady dressed like an elephant?

Child: It was a lady dressed like an elephant.

Kelley: Was it a naked elephant did you say?

Child: No, lady.

The interviewer's deep desire to hear about nakedness had clearly intervened here. But the elephant hunt had only just begun. "What was the elephant doing?" Kelley wanted to know.

Child: Just standing.

Kelley: Oh, really. Were any of the private parts showing on the elephant?

The child could not say. Next came a string of urgent questions about a bowl of ice cream, and licking the bowl _ which, the child maintained, was in the kitchen. A disappointing answer.

Kelley: But you said it was in the secret room with the elephant.

Child: No.

It was all downhill from here as the interviewer proceeded to ask the girl if she had seen a penis on the elephant. "He just has a tail," came the answer.

Kelley: Did you ever see ice cream on the tail of the elephant?

Child: No.

On the basis of such evidence, the authority of such investigators, the prosecutors built the charges that swept the Amiraults off to prison. Later the prosecutors presided over a celebratory seminar titled "The Fells Acres Day School Case: A Model Multidisciplinary Response."

In February, outside the courtroom where Williams showed videotapes of the children being interrogated, a knot of reporters watched the proceedings on television. "Oh my God!" one journalist howled in disbelief, as she listened to the investigator's determined questioning and the resulting stories about stabbing and slaughtered animals.

"Oh my God!" a Miami-based reporter similarly exclaimed recently, when confronted with the Snowden story and the way the child witnesses had come to produce their accusations. It is a common response as the facts about these prosecutions emerge. There will be much more to say when the history of these cases is studied, as it surely will be, along with the activities of the prosecutors _ still busy, in Massachusetts as elsewhere, proclaiming that the jury had heard all the arguments, and the jury had spoken.

The future will have something to say, too, about the judges who lent themselves to the mania of the times _ inventing new rules of evidence, crediting the incredible _ and about those, too, who valued the machinery of procedure more than the claims of justice.

Not all did, which is, of course, why Grant Snowden walked out of the darkness of 12 years imprisonment. The same amount of time an impoverished and innocent Gerald Amirault has endured behind bars.

Dorothy Rabinowitz is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Wall Street Journal

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