Thursday February 28, 2013

Bernard Baran Jr. spent 21 years in prison as a victim of the legal establishment, and even though he has been free for seven years the establishment still won’t let him off the hook. At this point, the refusal of the office of state Attorney General Martha Coakley to wipe his criminal record clean amounts to piling on.

Mr. Baran, then 19, was convicted in 1985 of molesting five children at the Early Childhood Development Center in Pittsfield where he worked. The trial in Berkshire Superior Court came in the midst of nationwide hysteria about child molestation at day care centers akin to the Salem witchcraft frenzy, and that Mr. Baran was openly gay further hurt his chances of a fair trial in that overwrought climate. The courtroom was closed during the testimony of the alleged victims, violating Mr. Baran’s right to a public trial, and psychologists disclosed the "repressed memories" of the children, a now-discredited practice. Reports and testimony that could have assisted Mr. Baran, such as the coaching of a child by a parent hoping for a cash settlement and the possibility that one child may have been abused by a family member, were withheld.

Citing these and other judicial blunders and biases, Worcester Superior Court judge Francis R. Fecteau threw the case out and freed Mr. Baran in 2006. After three more years of electronic surveillance, an Appeals Court backed the judicial ruling, and when Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless wisely decided not to retry Mr. Baran, the case was over.

But not entirely. Mr. Baran has asked that his criminal record be expunged because it has hindered his efforts to find work. The attorney general’s office has declined, arguing in Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday that there has not been a finding of innocence. However, while denying liability, the state reached a $400,000 settlement with Mr. Baran after his conviction was overturned, which it clearly did to forestall a lawsuit by Mr. Baran that it would have lost. The state doesn’t settle with criminals and that settlement constitutes the judgment in Mr. Baran’s favor the attorney general’s office says is necessary for his record to be cleared.

The rulings by Judge Fecteau and the Appeals Court, coupled with the settlement, are all arguments in Mr. Baran’s favor, and it is small-minded of the attorney general’s office to grasp at technicalities to deny a reasonable request that his name be cleared. The court should, like its predecessors, support Mr. Baran.