The Injustice Done to Bernard Baran
By Bob Chatelle
Friday, October 17, 2003
IN WILLIAM Simons’ Sept. 13 op-ed, “Baran received a fair trial,” the retired judge defends the trial and conviction of Bernard Baran, over which he presided in January 1985. I write to set the record straight.
This much is undisputed. In October 1984, 19-year-old Bernard Baran was charged with unspeakable acts against children enrolled in the Pittsfield daycare center where he worked as an aide. Four months later, Baran was convicted of abusing five of them. Simons fails to note that at trial he dismissed the charges against a sixth child. This omitted fact is critical, because this child was the initial “discloser” — the one who started the case. Crucial information about this child and his family was successfully obscured by the prosecutor. In fairness to Simons, he may have been as much in the dark about them as was the jury. Most of this information did not surface until years later, when the mother sued the daycare.
Space limitations prevent me from giving great detail. (The reader is referred to the Web page, www.freebaran.org, which contains extensive transcript and deposition material from the lawsuits against the daycare, as well as the complete and unedited testimony of the child witnesses.) But I will try to summarize.
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The boy’s mother and her boyfriend were IV drug addicts, using narcotics, barbiturates, and amphetamines. They were well known to the Pittsfield police, and even appeared in a videotape produced by the police about how drug abusers act in the community. They were violent. On one occasion the boyfriend held the mother by her ankles out a second-story window. On another occasion, the boyfriend required open-heart surgery for a near-fatal knife wound. Social workers were regular visitors to this home, and the children were twice placed in foster care. Not surprisingly, the accusing boy exhibited severe behavioral problems at school.
The couple was also extremely homophobic. When they realized that Baran was gay, they complained to the school. The mother reveals her attitude towards gay men in her civil-trial deposition — the relevant portions are available at the Web site. (In sworn testimony, the by-then ex-boyfriend expressed doubt about Baran’s guilt.) In his op-ed, Simons conceded that “one parent had objected to Baran supervising his son because he was prejudiced against homosexuals.” Incredibly, Simons neglects to mention that the complaining parent was the person who made the first allegation against Baran.
Shortly after making the accusations, the complaining couple was in a lawyer’s office to discuss suing the daycare. Soon after that, the mother threw the live-in boyfriend out and DSS took custody of the children. Another boyfriend moved in with her. The children were allowed to visit. Days before the Baran trial began; the accusing child told his foster mother that his mother’s new boyfriend had sexually abused him. DSS investigated immediately, substantiated the allegations, and referred the matter to the district attorney. But the matter was dropped.
Any reasonable person hearing child-sexual-abuse allegations is going to wonder how a child could claim abuse if it didn’t happen. Had the jurors — or the judge — known the foregoing information about this troubled, homophobic couple, they might well have understood that first accusation’s genesis.
Simons is sorely mistaken that this case was not affected by inflammatory media coverage. The McMartin daycare case in Manhattan Beach, California, had been dominating television news for nearly a year when, on Sept. 5, 1984, Gerald Amirault was arrested on charges of sexually abusing children at the family-run Fells Acres Day School in Malden, Massachusetts. Other well-publicized daycare cases were ongoing in the Bronx, South Carolina, and New Hampshire.
Simons confined his review of the local coverage to stories published in The Eagle during January 1985, and claims the coverage was not inflammatory. How could it be? Simons had excluded the media during the trial’s most sensational part — the six child accusers’ testimony.
The most prejudicial local coverage occurred in the first month after Baran’s arrest. Perhaps the worst was an interview with the first accusing family that appeared in the Eagle on Oct. 13, 1984. The mother and her boyfriend are portrayed as loving parents rather than as the violent drug-abusing people known to the police. Baran is portrayed as a monster. Among other things, the article claims that the child knows of at least two more children who were molested and that he and his friends screamed and cried. To soothe the child, the mother said that she tells her son that he saved all his little buddies.
Within days of Baran’s arrest, panicked parents flocked to informational meetings and took their children to “good touch, bad touch” puppet shows organized by “authorities” in child sexual abuse. In very short order, flawed investigative techniques worthy of a Salem witch-hunt triggered a wave of additional “disclosures.” Panic-stricken parents quickly became convinced — by police, by therapists, by prosecutors — that terrible things had happened to their children. They were told about the allegations against Baran and what symptoms to look for. As each fearful parent contacted investigators with a suspicion that their child had been a victim, the suggestive interrogations of the toddlers began. At trial, each child took his or her turn to tell the stories that he or she had practiced in weeks of mock trials orchestrated by the prosecutor.
Dan Ford’s remark comparing Baran to “a chocoholic in a candy store” is outrageous. But there are better — and subtler — examples of Ford playing to the jury’s homophobia. For example, the first child tested positive for gonorrhea. Baran tested negative and no record could be found of his ever having been treated. Ford needed to prove that no meant yes. He elicited testimony from a pathologist that a penicillin dose could have quickly eradicated the disease. (Baran is allergic to penicillin.) The crowning blow came when Ford asked whether gonorrhea was especially prevalent in any subgroups. The witness responded, “Well, obviously it’s described in greater frequency in prostitutes and male homosexuals.” This portrayal of gay men as diseased was devastating in 1985, when there was enormous national anxiety about AIDS.
The first accusing family has been discussed. But another child should be mentioned. This little girl’s mother was also a drug addict and friendly with the first mother. This mother also sued, but died of AIDS before the trial began. The case was quietly settled when the child’s lawyer discovered that his client had recanted her accusation shortly after Baran was convicted. On Oct. 1, 1985, a social worker made the following notation in the child’s file: “[The therapist] stated that it came out in session that Bernie Baran did not rape [the child] at ECDC last year. [The child] indicated that her mother led her to believe that if she didn’t say the right words they wouldn’t get a lot of money. [The mother] is in the process of suing ECDC.”
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As “proof” of guilt, Simons asserts that Baran “admitted guilt” in 1989 when he was being evaluated for commitment to the Bridgewater Treatment Center. Once again, Judge Simons is misinformed. In January 1985 Simons sentenced 19-year-old Bernard Baran, a shy, slight young man, to three life terms to be served at Walpole, perhaps the commonwealth’s most dangerous prison. Just days after he arrived at Walpole, Baran was brutally raped. Baran struggled to survive. He was fortunate not to have met Father Geoghan’s fate, but beatings, insults, and more rapes punctuated his everyday life.
Finally, in March 1988, Baran slashed his wrists in an act of ultimate despair. The prison infirmary referred him to the Bridgewater Treatment Center to be evaluated for possible commitment. At the time, the center was run by the Department of Mental Health and was a humane place, compared to the rest of the system. Many people suggested to Baran that he would be safer there. Perhaps the doctors just said what they needed to say in order to save the young man’s life. Baran should not be condemned if he felt compelled to go along with this strategy.
The ’80s daycare hysteria is a permanent blot on Massachusetts’ reputation. Bernard Baran was the first person convicted during this disgraceful national nightmare. He has spent half of his life in prison. He and his family have suffered horribly for 19 years. Judge Simons and I agree on one thing — prolonging this injustice is “not without consequences for society and this community.”
Bob Chatelle is co-director of the Bernard Baran Justice Committee.
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