In October 1984, Bernard Baran was working as an assistant at the Early Childhood Development Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts when he was arrested on charges of molesting children under his care.
An openly gay high school dropout, Baran, of Lanesborough, Massachusetts, had no criminal record, but the charges came at a time when allegations of day care sex abuse were erupting across the nation. Nearly all of the allegations in this nationwide hysteria were ultimately proven false.
In September 1984, the family of a 3-year-old boy went to center officials and complained that Baran should be fired because he was gay. On Oct. 5, the boy told his mother that “Bernie” had hurt his penis.
Police were called and the boy was taken to a physician who found no injuries, but determined that the boy tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat. Baran was arrested and tested for gonorrhea; the tests came back negative.
The news of the arrest generated hysteria and prompted more than a dozen children to allegedly claim that Baran had fondled, raped, or sodomized them at the center. A grand jury indicted him on 10 charges of rape and indecent assault in connection with five children. On the first day of his trial in January 1985, he was charged with rape and indecent assault on a sixth child. The six children testified at trial, although when the boy who made the first accusation threw a tantrum in court and had to be removed, the charges relating to him were dropped.
Baran was convicted in January 1985 of five counts of rape and five counts of indecent assault and battery and was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal.
In 2004, Baran got a new team of lawyers and in 2006, after lengthy post-conviction proceedings, Superior Court Judge Francis R. Fecteau concluded that Baran’s trial attorney, Leonard Conway of Springfield, Massachusetts, had been ineffective.
The judge found that Conway had failed to prepare adequately for trial by failing to obtain or use the unedited videotapes and by failing to consult with investigators and experts. At trial, Conway failed to challenge testimony by prosecution witnesses that vouched for the veracity of the victims and failed to seek to exclude immaterial and highly prejudicial evidence, according to the ruling.
In addition, evidence had been unearthed showing that on the same day that Baran went on trial, social workers had recommended that sexual abuse charges be brought against the boyfriend of the girl's mother based on the boy's claim that he had been abused by the boyfriend. The reports relating to that allegation were never turned over to Baran's defense lawyers.
The prosecution appealed the decision and in 2009, a Massachusetts Court of Appeals not only affirmed the ruling, but found “troubling” questions of prosecutorial misconduct that included the failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence and giving an improper closing argument.
Most problematic—though the court did not specifically make a finding of prosecutorial misconduct—were videotaped interviews of the children who authorities said Baran molested. Versions of the tapes that had been massively edited were presented to the grand jury that indicted Baran.
Unedited versions of the tapes, which were discovered in 2004 in a room with drunken driving videos, showed the children were asked leading questions and at times refused to speak. At times, they said Baran molested them and at other times they said no one touched them or gave other names.
One tape shows a child saying over and over “Where’s my prize? You promised me a prize,” according to Baran’s defense team.
The appellate court ruled that if the prosecution wanted to take the case to trial again, Baran was entitled to a hearing on the question of prosecutorial misconduct. Baran was freed on bond pending a new trial after serving 21 years. During that time he was repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten. In June 2009, Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless dismissed the charges.
Baran later filed a lawsuit seeking damages and the state settled the case for $400,000. Baran died of a brain aneurysm on September 1, 2014.
– Maurice Possley