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The trials of Bernard Baran (continued)

The Catch-22 of maintaining innocence in prison

WHEN SENTENCED to life, an inmate in Massachusetts will often serve at least two years under maximum security. Bernard Baran spent two weeks.

Prison officials knew when he entered Walpole State Prison that Baran was a special case. Almost immediately, inmates began placing cigarette bets on who would be the first to beat, rape, or even kill him, Baran says. He would need protection.

Baran fit the classic profile of an easy target. He was small, gay, effeminate, and a convicted pedophile — and he swore his innocence. His survival depended on negating these attributes as best he could. Ironically, the easiest one to change would have been his stance of innocence, the one he clung to the hardest.

His adamant denial of guilt should have kept him out of Bridgewater Treatment Center, the medium-security facility for sex offenders where Baran is now held. Acknowledging his crimes would have sufficed for an automatic transfer to Bridgewater, a safer environment where inmates receive counseling. Instead, Baran was admitted through a bureaucratic technicality, and it took four years. Why? Because he was considered a "sexually dangerous person."

Baran explains that he was regarded as a greater threat than other sex offenders because he refused to admit to his crimes.

"In a way, saying you’re innocent makes it more dangerous because [therapists] don’t want to hear it," says Baran. "They think it makes you more sexually dangerous because you’re not admitting to your crimes and they don’t know how to treat you unless you do."

Immediately following his conviction, Baran spent two and a half weeks at Walpole, separated from the general population. The Department of Correction (DOC) extended his stay in the Hostile Segregation Unit, where all inmates are first kept. Unable to find him a safe location within the prison, officials placed Baran in the hospital unit until a transfer could be arranged.

After Walpole, Baran was shuffled through five medium-security state prisons to ensure his safety, but the abuse did not let up. At Concord, he was beaten several times, and fellow inmates stole most of his property. At the now closed Southeastern Correctional Center, three inmates beat and gang-raped him.

The beatings intensified at Norfolk, where Baran says his eye was split open in one incident. In another, a fellow inmate slammed a metal tray on his head in the cafeteria, giving him a concussion. Baran was hospitalized both times. Despite the DOC’s standard investigations into the savage beatings, he never identified the perpetrators.

"If you snitch, you’re gonna get killed," Baran says. "At least if you don’t tell, you get a little respect for that." It was also at Norfolk that he twice attempted suicide.

Although Bridgewater has proved to be a safer place for Baran physically, it has been more difficult psychologically. Catcalls and epithets follow him down corridors regularly. Even more frustrating than harassment from fellow inmates are the group sessions, where therapists attempt to "heal" those with sexual illnesses. His profession of innocence complicates matters for all parties involved. But Baran works with what he’s been handed: he uses the group-therapy sessions, where inmates are taught how to manage their anger, to instead reckon with the frustration of his imprisonment.

Baran finds daily solace in his job at the facility’s bakery — a job he takes pride in, and says is the most coveted position there. When he first started working in the bakery, he was overjoyed by being able to touch a raw egg for the first time in so many years. And just last week, he was able to invent a new recipe with the permission of his boss, an orange cake with raspberry frosting. But when all is said and done, Baran is still a prisoner. When he leaves the bakery each afternoon, he must return to his cell and attempt to fall asleep, wondering how he will survive another day.

— Dori Berman, Carrie Lock, Richard Rainey, and Lindsay Taub

Although his family had come to accept his sexual orientation, Baran encountered other difficulties as a gay man. Not the least of these was that, for some, his decision to work around children was cause for concern.

The issue was first raised by the family of a three-year-old at the day-care center, Tom Hill. Late in the summer of 1984, Joe Hill, Tom’s mother’s boyfriend, complained about the center allowing a gay man to work with children, according to police reports.

Tom’s mother, Sarah Hill, echoed Joe’s intolerance. "I had a feeling that if they’re gay, they shouldn’t be with kids," she said in court documents. "They shouldn’t get married. They shouldn’t have kids. They shouldn’t be allowed out in public."

At the time, Joe, Sarah, and Tom Hill lived together; Tom’s father (and Joe’s cousin), Tony, had moved out of the house just before Tom was born. Well known to local police through repeated domestic-abuse complaints, according to court documents, both Sarah and Joe had long been entrenched in the local drug culture.

"It was a way of life," Joe Hill acknowledged in court documents. "Nembutal, Seconal, Percodan, heroin, cocaine, Methedrine. Is that enough?"

On Friday, October 5, 1984, two months after complaining about Baran’s presence at the day-care center, Joe Hill made a more ominous call. That morning, he told Pittsfield police that Tom came home from school the previous day with blood on his penis. Hill told detectives the boy had said, "Bernie did it."

That same afternoon, Pittsfield police detectives Joseph Collias and Robert Beals went to the day-care center. After speaking to interim director Janie Trumpy, they learned that Tom Hill had not attended school on the day Joe Hill said the incident occurred, according to their reports.

Nonetheless, suspicion spread, setting in motion a fast-paced investigation that centered on one suspect: Bernard Baran. That evening, the accusations of one three-year-old girl, Jane Reed, became pivotal in the case against Baran.

The girl’s mother, Eileen Reed, was secretary of the day-care center’s board of directors, and had taken her daughter out of the school citing administrative problems, according to court documents. Within hours of Joe Hill’s complaint, day-care-center coordinator Carol Bixby called Reed to tell her that certain parents were voicing suspicions about Baran, according to police reports.

Reed called Pittsfield Police captain William Dermody. As a result, Detectives Francis Winpenny and Bruce Eaton met the Reeds at their home on the night of October 5. Eileen Reed told them that she had questioned her daughter privately and learned that Baran had fondled Jane.

The following week, parents, teachers, social workers, police officers, and the Berkshire County District Attorney’s Office met to discuss the allegations. Authorities told parents to question their children. Jane (Satullo) Shiyah, a psychologist with the Berkshire County Rape Crisis Center, and Pat Palumbo, of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), staged a sexual-abuse puppet show for the children. They carefully monitored each child’s reaction. Those who responded unusually — acting out or showing discomfort — were then interviewed. By the end of the exercise, the complaints tallied by Shiyah and Palumbo numbered more than a dozen.

On October 6, Baran was arrested and charged with crimes related to the Hill and Reed allegations. He telephoned his mother from jail and told her he didn’t do anything and had nothing to hide, according to police reports. He posted bail the next day, only to be arrested a second time, on October 10. He has remained behind bars ever since.

During the weeks following Baran’s arrest, authorities narrowed the case to allegations by six children: Tom Hill, Jane Reed, and four others: David Stowe, Kathy Cooper, Mary Gomez, and Peter Slocum. In all, Baran was charged with 12 counts; six for indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14, and six more for child rape.

In a panic, Baran’s mother sold the family car to retain a lawyer. Scrolling through the phone book, she came upon the name of Leonard Conway, a local attorney who, unbeknownst to Shaw, was not a criminal-defense lawyer. She retained him, mistaking his name for that of Leonard Cohen, the public defender who had handled Baran’s arraignment.

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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