Letter: Baran aftermath was worse than Salem


To the editor of THE EAGLE:

In its Sept. 4 editorial, "Bernard Baran," The Eagle writes regarding the flawed prosecution and conviction of Bernard Baran that "The case that ensued in Berkshire Superior Court in the midst of this ugly climate was a throwback to the Salem witch trials." Comparison to those trials, usually incorrectly made, in this instance offers a useful comparison that shows how the judicial system then responded to false convictions in a more mature and compassionate way than has our modern judiciary.

Bernard Baran had to fight to get compensation for his wrongful arrest, conviction, and punishment. Others caught up in the wave of convictions and punishments at the time similarly had to seek remedies individually with radically different results and overwhelmingly in the face of opposition from zealous prosecutors.

Following the Salem Witch Trials, however, the judiciary in Massachusetts accepted the reality that many people had been wrongfully convicted in the trials of 1692. Thus, in 1710, surviving victims, or families of those who did not survive, made claims for monetary compensation, and in 1711 such compensation was widely given. One of the judges in the trial court, Samuel Sewall, had previously apologized for his role in the trials. The compensations given in 1711 did not include any apology, and all involved in the prosecutions were exonerated. Massachusetts had come to understand that the persecutors as well as the victims had been caught in a web they felt had been spun by the Devil. Modern Massachusetts, unfortunately, has not sought to help those falsely accused, or even to acknowledge that some were.

Your editorial refers to the denial of Mr. Baran’s wish to have his criminal record expunged. Only Attorney General Martha Coakley can explain why she behaved that way. She is not of course solely responsible for the failure of Massachusetts to live up to the 18th-century standards following the Salem Witch Trials. Other Massachusetts victims of the modern day care panics, such as Gerald Amirault and Ray and Shirley Souza, have been similarly victimized, cases involving Ms. Coakley.

But it would be a serious mistake to put the whole burden of judicial injustice in these cases on Ms. Coakley. Any governor could have issued pardons. Whether there is anyone in the upcoming election for governor who would remedy such matters is something I don’t know. [Martha Coakley is running for governor -- editor’s note.] What I do know is that Massachusetts has not lived up to the standards of a community that did its best in the 18th century to remedy acts transparently unjust.



Binghamton, N.Y.

The writer is professor emeritus, Binghamton University, author of "Salem Story" (Cambridge University Press) and general editor of "Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt" (Cambridge University Press).


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