editorial called for prosecutors to be held accountable for miscarriages of justice that occur at their hands and specifically called out a former Berkshire County prosecutor who may have withheld exculpatory evidence in a child rape case nearly 30 years ago.
Bernard Baran Jr., an openly gay teenager, was convicted of multiple counts of child rape and spent 21 years behind bars for crimes he didn’t commit. In the face of homophobia and hysteria, Baran was convicted in 1985 despite a lack of evidence linking him to the crimes. In the years following, an examination of trial records suggests that the prosecuting attorney, Daniel Ford, withheld evidence from Baran’s defense attorney.
Baran was ultimately freed from prison in 2006. In the wake of his death last month, his defense lawyer, Harvey Silvergate, submitted a
letter to the editor
calling for Ford to be removed from his job as a superior court judge, a position he’s held since 1989. The
That’s premature — but Silverglate and Baran’s other supporters are right to seek a full, public inquiry into both the prosecution’s conduct and its decision to try the case in the first place. The decision to release Baran in 2006 did not settle the question of whether Ford and the Berkshire County district attorney Gerard Downing acted appropriately, or whether the Commonwealth has adequate safeguards to prevent such a wrongful conviction again. Reviewing the long-ago prosecution now may seem pointless, since it’ll be difficult to establish facts and Baran will never be able to see the results anyway. But wrongful convictions represent a serious failure of the justice system. To prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future, it’s critical that the state revisit this painful episode. Whatever an investigation reveals about Ford, it’s crucial for the Commonwealth to set the precedent that prosecutors will answer for their actions in cases of wrongful conviction.
In 1985, Baran worked as a teachers’ aide in a day care center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At least one of the parents of the alleged victims complained about a gay man caring for their child, going so far as to use a slur and to say that gay people should not be allowed outside. According to the editorial, videotaped interviews show that other supposed victims were coached into making accusations against Baran after first denying he did anything to them. Decades later, the allegation stands that by Ford and Downing not sharing the full videotapes with Baran’s attorney, the jury was forced to believe they weren’t missing anything by missing the removed sections. A claim against Baran by a young boy that ultimately was attributed to his mother’s boyfriend was also withheld from Baran’s defense. The Globe writes:
No matter what Ford shared with the defense lawyer, there’s a broader question about his decision to charge Baran in the first place. Ford and Downing certainly knew themselves that the case rested on dubious testimony. Prosecutors are supposed to seek justice and apply good judgment, not just score convictions by any means. So why did he bring it?
The fact that Ford is now a judge is, ultimately, a coincidence. He could have gone on to be a pilot or a professor, and the concerns about his actions in the 1980s would be just as relevant today. Massachusetts has been through witch hunts before, and later sought to learn from those mistakes. But Ford’s actions have never been subject of a full public investigation. It will take some courage, but the Supreme Judicial Court should investigate what happened in Pittsfield and put in place whatever trial rules it would take to prevent such a travesty from happening again.