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The trials of Bernard Baran
Twenty years ago, a young gay man was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation. There is good reason to believe he is innocent.

A note on this story

This is the first in a series of planned collaborations between the Boston Phoenix and the Boston University Investigative Journalism Project, a graduate seminar led by professors Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff. This story was written and reported by their students Dori Berman, Carrie Lock, Richard Rainey, and Lindsay Taub. The names of children and their relatives appearing in this article are pseudonyms.

IF HE HAD pled guilty to lesser charges, Bernard Baran would be a free man today.

But because he denied that he committed the multiple acts of child abuse of which he was accused, Baran couldnít cut his losses. He felt he couldnít plead guilty to something he didnít do.

Today, almost 20 years later, Baran sits in Bridgewater State Prison, waiting for a new team of lawyers to reopen his case and establish that he was a man falsely accused. As awareness grows in Massachusetts and throughout the nation that the innocent are sometimes unjustly convicted, Baran hopes for another chance at justice.

Hope ó and the courts ó are all he has.

ON SATURDAY, October 7, 1984, Bernard Baran was at a friendís house when the phone rang.

It was his friendís sister, and she sounded anxious. She was worried about her daughter, Tina, who attended the Early Childhood Development Center, in Pittsfield, where Baran worked as a teacherís aide.

"Bernie," she said, "I heard theyíre investigating some monster at the day care for molesting kids. Can you keep an eye out for Tina?"

Baran agreed, and quickly got off the line. Tinaís mother saw him as a protector, but Baran knew that investigators thought otherwise. He hung up and turned to his friend.

"Will you tell her? I canít do it," Baran recalls saying that day, 20 years ago. "This monster theyíre talking about is me."

Over the next four months, Baran, at that time a slender, 19-year-old high-school dropout, looked on helplessly as his life was dissected, then destroyed. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of abhorrent crimes. A gentle soul who enjoyed taking care of children, Baran came to be seen as a predator who fondled and sodomized more than a dozen young boys and girls in the classrooms, bathrooms, and back-yard shed of the day-care center where he worked.

Baranís conviction was the first in a wave of day-care-abuse cases that swept the country in the 1980s. In Manhattan Beach, California, several members of the McMartin family were tried for sexually abusing more than 40 children in satanic rituals. In Malden, the infamous Fells Acres day-care case saw Gerald "Tooky" Amirault convicted of similarly hideous crimes against children. While the scrutiny left all day-care workers susceptible to accusations, Baran was particularly vulnerable. He was gay.

Like Amirault, Baran has always maintained his innocence. Now, in his last legal bid for freedom, a team of lawyers is moving for a new trial. Indeed, 19 years after Baranís conviction, significant doubts remain about his guilt. Evidence that may have been vital to Baranís defense was never provided to his attorney at trial. Techniques used to interview the children he was accused of abusing have been repudiated in similar abuse cases. And at least two of those children, including the boy who first incited the case against Baran, have since made statements that cloud their accusations.

Life in Western Massachusetts

Pittsfield, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains near the New York State border, is home to about 50,000 people. The blue-collar burg, 136 miles from Boston, boasts a General Electric plastics plant and a farm team for the Houston Astros. Yet the city also has a provincial New England air about it; Norman Rockwell painted his portraits of Americana for the Saturday Evening Post in nearby Lenox.

Bernard Baran spent his youth in this close-knit community, and most of his family still call it home. His parents never married and his father, Bernard Baran Sr., left when his son was three. But he was not bereft of care. His mother, Bertha Shaw, worked two jobs in order to support the family ó Baran and his older siblings, Santo and Sharon.

At 13, Baran told his mother he was homosexual. Shaw took it hard. His "gay-ity," as she called it in a recent interview, was not something she expected, nor was it something she wanted to deal with. It took Stanley Sumner, her long-time partner ó and later the father of her youngest son, Clint ó to convince her to soften. He reminded her of Baranís thoughtfulness toward her and others. "If thatís being gay," she recalled him telling her, "then I hope all my children are gay" (see "Being Gay in Western Massachusetts," page 4).

After dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Baran found part-time work through the Berkshire Training and Employment Youth Program, spending the summers cutting lawns and sweeping walkways for downtown businesses. On the side, he began volunteering at the Berkshire County Association for Retarded Citizens, helping autistic children with everyday obstacles. These work stints were brief, rarely lasting more than a month, and Baran wanted a more stable job. In December 1982, the employment program set him up at the Early Childhood Development Center, a government-funded day-care center serving low-income families. Perched atop a hill on Francis Avenue overlooking downtown Pittsfield, the facility cared for between 80 and 90 children. By March 1983, Baran had applied for a permanent job there.

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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