Convicted child molester hopes new trial proves innocence
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. --When he was convicted in 1985 of raping five children, Bernard Baran joined the ranks of a new kind of criminal gripping the nation's attention: a child molester who used his job at a daycare to prey on his victims.
But some have always seen Baran, who calls himself "Bee," as the unfair target of what they say was an overzealous prosecution driven by widespread hysteria about such cases.
Two decades after he began serving three life sentences, a Superior Court judge has ruled that Baran should receive a new trial, and his supporters are hopeful that he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
"I'm convinced that all of the high-profile daycare cases of the 80s were absolute hogwash," said Bob Chatelle, a Baran supporter who has helped attract attention to Baran's case and about $280,000 for his new defense with his Web site, http://www.freebaran.org.
"The Baran case was railroaded through in a couple of months and was then forgotten about," Chatelle said. "No one was lifting a finger to do anything."
The problem, Chatelle says, was that prosecutors coaxed preschool-aged children into implicating Baran, an openly gay aide at Pittsfield's Early Childhood Development Center. And his lawyer did little to defend him.
Superior Court Judge Francis Fecteau agreed that Baran did not receive a good defense, using that as the basis for ordering a new trial for the 42-year-old.
But Fecteau, who ruled Thursday that Baran could be released on $50,000 bail, made clear that he had no opinion of Baran's guilt or innocence.
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless has appealed Fecteau's order for a new trial, and Baran is still incarcerated at a facility for convicted sex offenders in Bridgewater.
If Baran is able to come up with bail, the judge must still decide whether he can be released, given that he has been classified as a sexually dangerous person.
Still, those who have stood by Baran since his conviction -- and those who began paying attention when a new lawyer took up his case in 1999 -- view Fecteau's opinion as a strong step toward acquittal.
Several convictions for mass child abuse from the 1980s have been overturned, including those involving workers at the Little Rascals day care center in Edenton, N.C. In another case involving the McMartin Preschool near Los Angeles, charges were dropped by prosecutors after juries deadlocked on criminal charges.
A year after Baran's case, three members of the Amirault family who ran the Fells Acres daycare in Malden were convicted of abusing children. Gerald "Tooky" Amirault was paroled in 2004 after serving 18 years in prison. His sister and mother were convicted during a separate trial and were released from prison in 1995. All three denied they ever abused children.
Baran's case came about after a parent learned that Baran was openly gay. She said she didn't want "a queer" working with her child at the Pittsfield daycare, and later called police alleging abuse. Another parent soon said her daughter was abused.
During the investigation, state social workers went to the daycare and staged a puppet show for children, demonstrating the difference between good and bad touches. After the show, two boys said they saw Baran touch the other.
A fifth alleged victim came forward the day Baran's trial began. The defense attorney allowed Baran to be prosecuted for the fifth charge, even though he had been given no time to prepare a defense.
After his conviction in 1985, Baran lost an appeal. His case languished until the late 1990s, when some other high-profile daycare molestation convictions were revisited.
Baran's new lawyer, John Swomley, said there were no files available for his to review when he took on the case in 1999. He said he spent several years trying to get prosecutors to share evidence in the case.
"I have no doubt that I have a lot more ammunition than trial counsel had 20 years ago and I think Mr. Capeless will think long and hard about whether he really is going to try to put his case back together," Swomley said after Baran's bail hearing Thursday.
Baran's first attorney, Leonard Conway, said he was happy that Baran was granted a new trial, even on the grounds that he didn't provide a good defense.
"I did the best that anybody could've done in the circumstances," Conway, who still practices law in Westfield, said Friday. "I think the jury was picked up in the horrendousness of the case. The accusations were so horrible that you couldn't find him not guilty. That was the jury's mindset."
Capeless, the district attorney, says too much of the case has been focused on Baran, and not the children who said they were molested."The single most important fact is that 22 years ago, five young children came into court, faced that defendant, a jury -- and under the scrutiny of a judge -- gave their testimony and they were believed," Capeless said. "That's the most important thing and that has not changed."