My Most Outrageous Boston Adventure
Robert Stoesen a.k.a. Andy Stoesen, March 2005
[The following is a personal narrative. It is not an official statement on behalf of anyone named within. Unless otherwise attributed, all opinions are my own.]
PART ONE: “Massachusetts, The Spirit of America” (license plate slogan)
Talk about the life in Massachusetts
Speak about the people I have seen
And the lights all went down in Massachusetts
And Massachusetts is one place I have been
-- Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, “Massachusetts”
Don’t try to deny it, folks! You know your inner Bee Gees fan is in there. I know mine is. He’s made a number of trips to Boston and environs in recent times to visit my good friend Bernard Baran, known as “Bee,” and this is the story of my latest visit.
Most readers will be aware that the evidentiary hearing in Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Bernard Baran originally scheduled for two days in late January had to be parsed out over several subsequent dates due to the winter storm which closed the courthouse and scuttled my travel plans, as well as those of star witness Maggie Bruck.
The final session of the hearing was rescheduled for Monday, February 28. I planned to arrive in Boston on the Thursday evening prior. Snow did fall again in Washington and Boston that afternoon, but, happily, I made it to Boston this time, albeit delayed until 12:30am, just in time for the subway to close for the night. That made for a pricey cab ride. However, those of you who are familiar with my $200 Christmas Day cab ride from Myrtle Beach, SC, to Wilmington, NC, last December are aware that I know from expensive cab rides.
The duty of hosting me when I am in Boston is usually split between two households. Bee’s primary advocates, Bob Chatelle and Jim D’Entremont, open the home they share near Boston’s Symphony Hall to me. Their guest room also serves as Bob’s home office, which does double duty as the headquarters of the Bernard Baran Justice Committee and as administrative office for the National Center for Reason and Justice. When I am not in Bob and Jim’s custody, I stay at the East Boston garret of Ed Bell, another friend and Bee supporter.
Jim and Bob regularly spend Friday evenings visiting Bee at the state prison complex in Bridgewater, about 25 miles south of Boston, where Bee is held at a facility for sex offenders known as the Massachusetts Treatment Center. (I choke on those words. A discussion of the so-called treatment that is provided there would require a separate essay.) I join them for these visits when I am town, and ordinarily I return to Bridgewater for the Sunday visiting hours. On this particular Friday, we were joined by our friend Frank Kane, who also visits Bee regularly and has long been involved with these issues since being falsely accused himself, the result of a daughter’s encounter with a “recovered memory” therapist. (She later recanted.)
Many people are curious about what it is like to visit someone in prison, especially at a place with a name like the Treatment Center. As long as one wears acceptable clothing – that is, clothing that does not look like prisoners’ clothing, has no insignias, and is sufficiently modest so as not to inflame the morbid passions of the sex offenders (no open-toed shoes) – the clearance process is not particularly unusual in these times when everyone is more or less accustomed to ID checks, metal detectors, and the occasional pat search.
At the Treatment Center, visits take place in a room which resembles a 1970’s-era cinderblock student lounge, if such lounges were kept clean. Plastic chairs are attached to tables or in rows. Vending machines line one wall. Bee always manages to return from the candy machine with some confection that I would not ordinarily eat, seeing as I am, you know… vegan and weird about food and all. “I got this because there’s two pieces, so we can split it!” He’s a special guy that way.
The visitors are let into the room and take seats. (Various banks of seats are arbitrarily “closed” by the guards in patterns indiscernible to civilians.) The prisoners then trickle in from wherever they’ve been fetched from in the bowels of the Center, places the taxpayers who fund the facility will never be permitted to see.
Our visit with Bee that evening was very pleasant. Bee has suffered many torments over the course of his incarceration, a period which has spanned his entire adult life (he will turn 40 in May), but one thing he will probably never suffer from is a loss for words. We share remarkable moments of levity, especially when Bee performs his impersonations of various odd denizens of his very odd world, television characters, and family and friends.
The efforts of Bee’s current legal team have produced evidence that would serve not only to raise a reasonable doubt in a new trial but in fact unequivocally exonerate him in the opinion of many, including myself. Yet, even if none of that existed, I would have faith in his innocence. Suggestions that he is a pedophile are patently absurd to anyone with the remotest knowledge of his history. More importantly, his life as he has lived it demonstrates a level of kindness, decency, honor, and honesty that no sociopath or predator could achieve. (I’ve been scammed by the best.)
Bee has been in considerable discomfort of late, due to a dental problem that was left unattended and recently became so severe that he had to be treated in a hospital where the situation was exacerbated by inexperienced dental students. This was followed by the requisite wrangling with authorities over medications to manage his pain. In any event, we were pleased, at least, that his swelling had receded and that his pain was enough under control that it would not be too much of a distraction for him during Monday’s hearing.
Saturday was a “free” day. During my visits, Bob, Jim, and Ed have provided me with tours all over the Boston area, including most of the major neighborhoods and attendant sites, historic and otherwise, of Boston proper, along with adjacent jurisdictions such as Cambridge and Chelsea and places further afield such as Salem and Concord and the remarkable Purgatory Chasm, which must rank among the most dangerous unsupervised natural playgrounds in the nation. There’s nothing like seeing small children and their families risking life and limb, recklessly scrambling over perilous rock formations. (See, when I was kid, those were the kinds of things we did out of the view of parents, not with them.) It’s a beautiful and fascinating place to tour for those who are both agile and insured. If you go with Ed, he’ll take your group to his secret swimming hole, far from the madding crowd.
On this trip, we stayed close to home. I accompanied Jim and Bob to Cambridge and was taken to the Peabody Museum on the Harvard campus. I prefer museums that don’t overwhelm, and this one has some nicely scaled exhibits about American Indians. There is also a good-sized “retro” collection of stuffed animals in various states of repair and decay which functions better as an exhibit of taxidermy than zoology. The icing on the retro cake is the legendary “glass flowers” exhibit, a collection of scale replicas of plants crafted from glass as models for study in the late 19th and early 20th century. The models’ value to students of botany has eclipsed, of course, but they exhibit some of the most remarkable artisanship I have ever seen.
Sunday afternoon I moved to Ed’s place for the remainder of my visit. That evening, sitting with Ed and his boyfriend David, a raccoon climbed the stairs to Ed’s rooftop and peered through the door at us for a long time, as if it were our pet asking to be let in.
It was around this time that predictions of snow for Monday night were escalating, leading to concerns about whether I would be able to leave on Tuesday morning, but the main concern was Bee’s hearing the following day at the Worcester County Courthouse. Bee’s case originated in Berkshire County but is being heard in Worcester, because the original D.A. is now a sitting judge in Berkshire County (and continues to do a bang-up job for justice in western Massachusetts from all accounts).
PART TWO: “The Waiting is the Hardest Part”
(Yes, your Tom Petty fan is in there, too, but right now, we’re going to talk about someone else.) In 1971, expounding on a photo captioned “Waiting for a court decision,” Buffy Sainte-Marie said, “It seems like 90% of my life is spent in court or with the press…” Nothing related to the pursuit of justice has changed since Sainte-Marie penned those words. The wheels turn slowly and the waiting is interminable. These most recent court appearances are the result of over five years of ceaseless effort.
As for spending time with the press, unfortunately the press has been for the most part silent, despite some of our best efforts. Currently, Bee’s case is receiving regular coverage in the Berkshire Eagle newspaper, the Boston Phoenix “alt weekly,” and in pieces written by Jim for the Guide, a gay travel and alternative news magazine.
Because the accusations against Bee hinged upon the fact that he was an openly gay teenager working with children and because the case was permeated with homophobic elements and commentary from start to finish, many people labor under the misapprehension that Bee enjoys support from the mainstream gay press and from gay advocacy organizations. That is not the case.
Nevertheless, a substantial band of supporters from all walks of life have rallied around this case, and over forty of us were present in the courtroom Monday morning, filling every seat in the gallery. It was wonderful to see Bee’s mother and niece again after over a year and to meet other members of his extended family for the first time.
We spent a long time waiting, not for a court decision, but for the defendant to arrive. Despite all the proper arrangements having been made, the Powers That Be had neglected to send anyone to transport Bee to the courthouse. Conspiracy? Snafu? Opinions vary. Bee’s lead attorney, John Swomley, says he prefers to believe such events are the result of incompetence rather than malice.
In any event, it was stressful for all concerned. This final session was to begin at 9:00 and conclude at mid-day. The court would not be available in the afternoon, and every minute of delay was a minute lost from the day’s session. So we waited. And we waited.
In the interim, they brought a few guys into the courtroom from the noisy lockup behind the gallery for arraignments. As is often the case in our courts, these defendants were black and Latino. It made for a somewhat odd spectacle. Some 45 white people sat watching people of color face a judge in a process that ordinarily would have no audience at all. Finally, at 10:37, Bee was brought into the courtroom, shackled at the wrists and ankles in the usual manner of things.
It’s not the torment of the flames that finally sees your flesh corrupted
It’s the small humiliations that your memory piles up
-- Elvis Costello, “This is Hell”
In 1998, journalist Debbie Nathan encouraged Bob to contact Bernard Baran and to bring his case to light after 15 years of darkness. Since that time, many of us who have gotten to know Bee have grown to love him dearly. He is a very special person, and, depending upon age and circumstance, he has become like a son, a nephew, or a brother to a number of us.
It is deeply hurtful to witness a loved one treated in the manner in which Bee is treated, to see a beloved – and innocent – friend chained from head to toe, prevented by bailiffs from turning around to smile at his mother (he did manage to sneak a few glances at the gallery), subjected to redundant, unnecessary strip searches after each visit (“Lift up your balls again!”), under the yoke of every arbitrary restriction, mind game, and insult of the Through the Looking Glass world that constitutes his thoroughly punitive, rehabilitative-in-name-only environment.
(I am aware, of course, that some defendants attack witnesses, jump out of courtroom windows, communicate inappropriately, etc. I know that some prison visitors pass contraband to inmates. I agree that rules are necessary for correctional institutions to operate safely and effectively. Nevertheless, that does not make it any easier, and there are standards of reasonableness and decency that are regularly and consciously trod upon.)
Once the defendant had been delivered and the judge located and returned to the courtroom, the hearing could finally commence. The room itself was a perhaps appropriately ghastly pre-War no-budget structure. We sat on hard, dirty wooden benches. There was chewing gum stuck to the back of the bench in front of me. The majesty of the law. (D.C. Superior Court’s groovy 1970’s “courtroom in the round” star chambers really aren’t much better, but they do seem cleaner.)
Anyway, the witness for the day was Maggie Bruck, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist who is a professor at Johns Hopkins medical school. She is a leading expert on children’s autobiographical memory, co-author of the book Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A scientific analysis of children's testimony, and has a slew of other impressive credentials befitting an expert. She is a charming, well-spoken woman, clearly intelligent, and, owing to her petite size and consistently pleasant manner, almost impish at times.
The alleged victims were interviewed on tape by psychotherapist Jane Satullo and others. Edited versions of the tapes were shown to the grand jury which indicted Bee. After years of wrangling, Bee’s defense team was able to obtain most of the unedited tapes and to provide them to Dr. Bruck for analysis. Dr. Bruck’s testimony served the twofold purpose of establishing that the evidence used against Bee was unreliable and tainted, creating a high probability of miscarriage of justice, and that a witness with her expertise could have rebutted the state’s witnesses at Bee’s trial, going to the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel. (Nota bene: These are not the only issues raised in Bee’s Motion for New Trial. Also, the children’s interviews were not the only evidence used against him that has been proven scientifically unreliable.)
Dr. Bruck, who has testified in similar cases around the country and abroad, explained that research demonstrates that the theory of “child sex abuse accommodation syndrome” is invalid. According to this theory, sexually abused children will repeatedly deny the abuse, will eventually elaborate after repeated and suggestive questioning, and may then recant, but such recantations are not to be believed. (Essentially, in my opinion, it boils down to a “no means yes” theory. Thus, any preconceived notion on the part of the questioner is instantly validated regardless of how the child answers.) It was explained that in reality sexually abused children will often be silent about the abuse but are generally forthcoming when questioned in an appropriate manner and that they rarely recant factual accusations.
She went on to explain children’s vulnerability to suggestion and how the accuracy of responses elicited from children is unreliable when interviewers use misguided and discredited techniques. For example, the use of “anatomically correct dolls” was discussed. It was explained that children aged 3-4 do not have the cognitive ability to conceptualize a doll as a symbol for themselves or another person. They see such dolls as fascinating playthings. She pointed out that when watching children interact with these dolls, it is not clear whether children are playing or showing.
Dr. Bruck explained other aspects of suggestive child interviewing techniques, such as “atmospherics” (e.g., repeatedly stating, “I know this must have been scary for you”), “selective reinforcement” (offering praise only when a child gives the “right” answers), the problem of interviewing a child in the presence of her parent (the child wants to please the parent, and the parent will often take the role of the interviewer as well as supply the answers), and the danger inherent in setting up questions by saying to a child, “Let’s make-believe.” Everything Dr. Bruck cited was demonstrated in the twenty-year-old videos that were shown in court.
The tapes were outrageous. With all due respect to Dr. Bruck’s impressive credentials, it hardly takes a college degree to understand what was going on in those interviews. All you have to do is watch them (an opportunity the public will never again have). If it were possible for me to be more outraged by this case than ever before, then I would be.
To give just a few examples, in one session the interviewer offers a child two anatomically correct dolls and attempts to explain that the doll with pubic “hair” represents an adult. (It was obvious that the child found her explanation of puberty and related hirsuteness completely incomprehensible.) The child is told, “That doll is a big boy,” meaning the doll represents an adult. The child stands up and compares his own height to that of the doll. “Me taller,” he says.
In each tape, the interviewers, including parents, are repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to get the children to respond with the “correct” narrative. In a particularly galling example, a child seems much more interested in playing with the junk food he was provided than answering questions about sexual touching. Eventually, the interviewer yanks on the penis of an anatomically correct doll, virtually swinging it around by its cloth genitals, and asks, “What did Bernie say when he touched your peepee?” The child had said nothing about his penis being touched.
This went on and on throughout the morning, as child after child was “interviewed,” encouraged to undress anatomically correct dolls, and instructed that the conversation topic of the day was to be peepees and butts. Dr. Bruck stated unequivocally, “These children are not lying.” Rather, they were accommodating the wishes and foregone conclusions of the adult questioners. (For more icing on the outrage cake, even the statements most incriminating to Bee are remarkably ambiguous and should never have been a basis for criminal charges.)
The taped sessions were not the first time the children had been interviewed. (First interviews, according to Dr. Bruck, are considered the most reliable.) In addition, subsequent interviews and preparation took place. By the time of the trial, children “testified” (if you could call it that; there are serious issues regarding the children’s statements in court) not only to being touched but to things such as Bernie putting scissors into a vagina and “scooping out blood,” cutting children’s hair, putting his fingers into a child’s eyes, and putting his penis on their tongues. (Lack of any vaginal or ocular injuries notwithstanding, all of this was alleged to have taken place in a busy daycare center where there was no opportunity for privacy.) It is painful for me even to repeat such accusations, preposterous as they are, with Bee’s name in front of them.
The children in these videos were very cute. As a result of their complete obliviousness to what was expected of them, many of their comments consisted of the sort of charming non sequiturs that one anticipates from three-year-olds. On several occasions, despite the disturbing nature of these tapes, spectators, myself included, responded with laughter to what was being shown.
Nevertheless, it was difficult at times for me to maintain my composure during the proceeding. I sometimes find the enormity of what was done to Bee and his family – which exceeds any definition of “cruel and unusual” that I can imagine – overwhelming. To see the courtroom gallery filled with people was heartening, but the fact that any of this happened – and that it continues to happen – brings shame upon our country. We can do better than this.
David Capeless, the District Attorney, made numerous feeble objections. (I’m told he objected more often and more strenuously in previous hearings.) Virtually all his objections were overruled or otherwise circumvented at the direction of the court. If I recall correctly, responding to one such objection, the court replied that the point the defense was attempting to elicit from Dr. Bruck was clear to His Honor from viewing the tape and would, in fact, be clear to “anyone” viewing the tape.
Finally, the questioning turned to one of the most obtuse elements of this whole affair. There were statements garnered in an interview which were subsequently expounded upon during the trial about a “Bird’s Nest Game,” which, in the minds of the people responsible for this obscene miscarriage of justice, constituted some kind of sexual activity. There does not seem to be any clear explanation of what this game was alleged to have entailed, but the available evidence indicates that elements of the child’s fractured narrative were in fact drawn from a book called Are You My Mother? from the popular “I Can Read It All By Myself” series which bears the Cat in the Hat logo. Bee would read this book to the children at the daycare center. Most of you are probably familiar with it. It tells the story of a newly hatched baby bird which leaves its nest in search of its mother.
I was not anticipating that this would be brought up during Dr. Bruck’s testimony, and when I realized that Mr. Swomley’s questions were venturing into this area, I became excited. So did the prosecutor, who naturally objected to whatever Mr. Swomley’s original question about the book was. The court concurred that the question as posed was improper and sustained the objection. Mr. Swomley then produced the following succinct, but dramatic, interrogative which was put to Dr. Bruck unchallenged: “Are you familiar with children’s literature?” Indeed, she was. She even had the book with her!
Shortly after this, the court ran out of time. Because of the delay in delivering Bee, the session had to end before the D.A. had a chance to cross-examine the witness, and it will probably not resume until April. Mid-March is a remote possibility, but the judge is presiding over a murder trial at that time and may not have room on his calendar. This is going to continue to take a long time, unfortunately. In a more typical case, the defense could in theory ask for bail, which might even be granted, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Bee is also held under a civil commitment.
We gathered in the hallway for some brief commentary from Bee’s attorney. Apparently, there is only one ingress and egress from this courtroom, because both the D.A. and then the judge had to wade through our crowd of people. Such encounters are not uncommon, of course, but they do bring home the fact that these situations are brought about and resolved not from on high but by actual human beings. A public interest lawyer friend (who also happens to be my beloved landlady, Tammy) commented to me about Bee’s case that in her practice of law she had come to feel that litigation can be the absolute worst way to solve a problem. It can certainly be one of the most expensive and most time-consuming. It’s been twenty years for Bee.
Well, to wrap this up, I did eventually lose my composure (such as it is), sitting in Worcester’s most mediocre Thai restaurant. Ed innocently asked me what I thought of the day in court, whereupon I collapsed into tears. This reaction was a bit unexpected and not his fault, but Ed is a very kind soul and reflexively reached across the table, the width of which put him in a somewhat awkward position, to take my hand to comfort me. Luckily, because it was Worcester’s most mediocre Thai restaurant (although we vegans can’t be too picky in such cities), there were no other customers nearby to witness my coming apart. In retrospect, despite the seriousness of the matter, it made for a rather comic tableau. One of Bee’s greatest gifts is his sense of humor, and I hope he joins me in seeing the humor in this. It has never been his desire to bring grief into anyone’s life.
And yes, it did snow again in Boston the night before I was to leave. I’d always thought that people were used to snow “up North.” However, to judge by the non-stop local news coverage, which consisted solely of variations on, “Hey, everybody! Look! It’s SNOWING!”, frozen precipitation is apparently as much of a novelty in New England as it is down South where I come from. In any event, the predicted foot of snow did not fall, and I was able to fly out with only an hour and a half delay.
Jim said something to me during this visit which really struck me. “It should not take an army of people and half a million dollars to free an innocent man,” he said. But in sad fact that is what it takes, which reminds me of some words of wisdom from Nickelodeon’s “The Fairly Odd Parents” cartoon, with which I’ll close this saga for now.
Wanda, the fairy godmother, opines that little Timmy can’t wish his parents out of jail, because, “They’re entangled in the American legal system! It would take years to get them out, even with magic!” Take heed, folks. That’s not just true of cartoons.