Our Opinion: Baran case offers lesson that is still current

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Tonight, the Berkshires community has a rare opportunity to grow in spirit and benefit from the wisdom that only comes from openly and honestly confronting past transgressions. At 7 p.m. in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the Pittsfield Human Rights Commission hosts a presentation centered around the shameful conviction and incarceration of a gay Pittsfield man who fell victim to the prevailing attitude of his times.

Bernard Baran, who was 19 at the time of his arrest in 1984, was a day care worker working at the Early Childhood Development Center in Pittsfield. Mr. Baran was accused of sexually abusing five children at the center; the trial that followed stands as a textbook example of how prejudice justified the perversion of legal processes to achieve a desired goal.

It may be difficult for today's Massachusetts residents to imagine, but there was a time when society considered "gay" and "pedophile" practically synonymous terms. Bearing that in mind, it is possible to understand — but not condone — such travesties of jurisprudence as denying Mr. Baran his constitutional right to a public trial, the encouragement of child witnesses to "recover" lost memories that never existed by the use of strategically awarded treats and the coaching of a child by a parent hoping for a cash settlement.

Mr. Baran, who steadfastly maintained his innocence until his death in 2014, spent 21 years in state prison suffering the kind of treatment that the inmate population reserves for convicted child rapists. Friends and advocates finally helped him win a new trial in 2006, when he was released on bail. Another three years passed before then-District Attorney David Capeless finally threw in the towel and decided not to retry the case. Only then could Mr. Baran begin to enjoy five years of freedom until his death. In a remnant of the misguided motives that originally placed him behind bars, then-Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to expunge his record.

Throughout this nation's history, Americans have revered the rule of law — but there were, and still are, times when lack of understanding, fear of "the other" and a need to expunge that threat from its midst gripped the populace and caused us to succumb to our baser instincts. The Salem Witch Trials were such an instance, as were lynchings of African Americans in the South. Today, immigrants — particularly those of Latin American origin — are victims of undeserved calumny. Mr. Baran was accused at a time when hysteria over child care sexual abuse swept the land, and his greatest offense — being openly gay when contemporary mores dictated that such "moral degenerates" stay in the closet made him a ripe target.

Tonight, three men who were instrumental in clearing Mr. Baran's name will speak — one of them the head of his legal team from 1999 onward, another who was inspired by his case to found a justice committee dedicated to helping others falsely convicted of crimes, and a third who contemporaneously reported Mr. Baran's case for the LGBT press.

Those who attend tonight will take away the knowledge that the battle to sustain the principles of equal rights for all is a never-ending one, and that society must remain constantly on guard against the lesser angels of human nature. If Mr. Baran's undeserved experiences result in the raising of our consciousness on this fraught topic, then his sacrifice will not have been in vain.

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