This June, District Attorney David Capeless of Berkshire County, Mass. announced that he was dropping all charges against Bernard Baran, 44, a man who has spent half his life behind bars on child molestation charges that the state no longer has the confidence to retry.
Massachusetts convicted Baran of molesting six children at a pre-Kindergarten daycare facility in Pittsfield, Mass. in January 1985. He was released on bond in 2006 after an appeals court determined that his trial attorney had been incompetent and that the prosecution may have withheld key exculpatory evidence. Baran says that during his jail term he was raped and beaten more than 30 times, necessitating six different transfers to new correctional institutions.
Such is the cost the prison system exacts on an openly gay man convicted of molesting children.
Baran was one of the first people in the country to be prosecuted in the daycare sex abuse panic of the 1980s, a bizarre, nationwide hysteria fed by fears of Satanism, homophobia, and a division of child psychology that used unproven interrogation techniques critics say caused children to recount sexual incidents that never took place.
While Baran's case has been covered extensively in Massachusettsand recently in the national mediaone aspect of it still hasn't really been examined. Prosecutor Daniel Ford likely engaged in serious misconduct and open bigotry in winning his conviction of Baran. Yet in 25 years, Ford has never been investigated or disciplined for his role in the case. And since 1989, Ford has sat as a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court. Ford's career trajectory and lack of accountability is the far too familiar product of the backward incentive structure that prosecutors work under. Convictions produce rewards, while abuse rarely comes with a penalty.
The most serious allegation against Ford in this case concerns an edited video interview with the children that he presented to the grand jury that indicted Baran. According to court documents, the video shows several children alleging that Baran had sexually abused them. But edited out was footage in which some of the children denied any abuse by Baran, accused other members of the daycare faculty of abuse or of witnessing abuse, and, most importantly, depicted interrogators asking the same questions over and overeven after repeated denialsuntil a child gave them an affirmative answer. Some children were even given rewards for their answers.
Withholding the unedited video from the grand jury was itself an act of misconduct. And Ford may also have withheld it from Baran's trial attorney. We can only say "may" because there's never been a hearing, and Baran's trial attorney was far from competent. (Judge Ford did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) In granting Baran a new trial in 2006, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Francis Fecteau never moved beyond the inadequacy of Baran's lawyer. Harvey Silverglate, one of Baran's appellate attorneys (and also a Reason contributor), says Fecteau's passing over the misconduct claims was entirely appropriate. "For the purposes of judicial economy, judges only focus on what's necessary to make a ruling," he says. "Judge Fecteau is a hero, here. I don't fault him at all."
When the case reached the state appeals court, the justices there not only upheld Fecteau's ruling, they looked more closely at Ford's possible misconduct.
"While the record does not settle the question whether the unedited videotapes were deliberately withheld by the prosecution," the ruling read, "there are indications in the trial transcript consistent with that contention."
The appellate court further noted that it took years for Baran's appellate lawyers to get prosecutors to turn over the unedited tapes. Baran's attorneys originally filed a motion for the tapes in 2000. For three years, then-District Attorney Gerard Downing, who assisted in Baran's original trial, claimed to be unable to locate the tapes. When Downing died of a sudden heart attack in December 2003, David Capeless took over as D.A. When a court ordered Capeless to find the tapes, he was able to produce them within months. The appellate court opinion cited other examples of Ford failing to turn over exculpatory evidence, too, including evidence that two of the children who accused Baran may have suffered prior sexual abuse.
The case against Baran was also awash in homophobia. According to court documents, the first parents to come forward with accusations against Baran in September 1984 had just days earlier registered a complaint with the center upon noticing Baran was "queer" by the way he walked and talked. The boy's mother, who thought gays "shouldn't be allowed out in public" much less permitted to work at daycare centers, said that she "didn't want no homo" watching her son.
When that child later tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat, Ford used the test against Baran at trial, even though: A) the child never accused Baran of forcing him to perform oral sex; B) the child, in fact, specifically denied having sexual contact with Baran on the witness stand; C) Baran tested negative for gonorrhea; D) the boy had told his mother two months prior that his stepfather had orally raped him; and E) on the very day Baran was convicted, charges against the stepfather were turned over to the D.A.'s office for possible prosecution. Baran's counsel was never informed of the allegation against the stepfather. Addressing the gonorrhea issue in his closing arguments, Ford implied that Baran's "lifestyle" made it probable that he contracted gonorrhea at other times and knew how to quickly eradicate it to cover his tracks.
In his closing argument, Ford likened Baran's job at a daycare center to a "chocoholic in a candy store," and hypothesized that in the "five or ten minutes" he was able to be alone with a child without being seen by other staff or children, Baran "could have sodomized and abused those children whenever he felt the primitive urge to satisfy his sexual appetite."
The appeals court that eventually overturned the conviction ruled that the incompetence of Baran's counsel "facilitated the speculative, stereotypical, and deeply insidious links between homosexuality, gonorrhea, and child molestation."
An affidavit signed by Baran's boyfriend at the time also paints Ford as a homophobe. According to the document, the D.A. spent an inordinate amount of time asking Baran's boyfriend about his sex life, employing variations of the word faggot, and a mocking, drawn-out pronunciation of homosexual. The affidavit alleges that in the ensuing months, Baran's boyfriend was pulled over by police officers and further harassed on a daily basis, and that Ford told himillegallythat if he spoke with Baran or Baran's defense attorney, he would be arrested. This of course is just an accusation. But it's a serious one, particularly against a sitting judge. And it has never been properly investigated.
In upholding the ruling that granted Baran a new trial, the appeals court added in a footnote that if the state wanted to retry him, Baran could file a motion for a hearing on Ford's possible misconduct. By dropping the charges, the D.A. avoided that hearing.
"In my opinion, the possibility of an embarrassing hearing into misconduct by a former prosecutor and now sitting Superior Court judge was the main reason, if not the reason, they decided to drop the charges," Silverglate claims. "The appeals court opinion cut a bit too close to the bone for them."
So while Bernard Baran is free after 22 years of incarceration, at the moment there is no plan to look into the actions of the prosecutor, now a sitting judge, responsible for the conviction. In his position on the Massachusetts Superior Court for the last 20 years, Ford has presided over some of the state's most serious criminal trials. He also serves on a committee that helps determine the state's rules and guidelines of criminal procedure.
Baran has said he isn't sure he wants to endure a lawsuit, but even if he did such a suit would still be unlikely to get to Ford. Prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity from civil-rights lawsuits, even in cases of misconduct that lead to false convictions. And they're rarely disciplined in other ways, either. Appeals courts rarely even mention prosecutors by name when criticizing their conduct. (Ford wasn't named in the Massachusetts appellate court's decision.) Courts and bar associations rarely hand down professional sanctions. According to a study released earlier this year by the advocacy group The Justice Project, "Despite the prevalence of prosecutorial misconduct all over the country, states have consistently failed to investigate or sanction prosecutors who commit acts of misconduct in order to secure convictions."
The only way Ford's actions in the Baran case could now be examined would be for one of the state's legal ethics boards to open an investigation, either on its own or in response to a complaint. Silverglate says that if there's no action in the coming months, he may file a complaint himself.
Radley Balko is senior editor of Reason magazine where this column originally appeared. The JFP Daily features his column every Tuesday.