Last night Bernard (“Bee”) Baran died suddenly at his home while talking with his partner, David, and his niece, Crystal. We are awaiting the autopsy results, but a heart attack or stroke seems most likely.
My partner Jim and I were prodded to reach out to Baran and his family by our friend, Debbie Nathan, who emailed us on June 18, 1998. She said:
“I hope someone will be inspired to help Bernie Baran: as you know, he’s the first daycare worker convicted in a ritual abuse case — also out of Massachusetts — and the reason it started apparently is because he “came out” in his little town and announced his homosexuality at the age of 18. The guy has now been locked up 13 years and is going to rot behind bars unless someone takes an interest in his case. Now might be the time to start.”
By “someone,” Debbie quite obviously meant us. Reach out we did.
We phoned his mother, who sounded like someone who had lost all hope. But she gave us Bee’s address and we wrote to him.
No response. We wrote one more time and still no response. He seemed not to want to talk to us.
In December of 1998, Bee called and talked a long while with Jim. (I was in Minnesota for the Christmas holidays.) He said he would call back after my return but did not. We wrote again and still got no response. Finally, on March 3, 1999 we receive a letter from him. In it he explains why it’s been difficult for him to get back to us.
“I was talking to my mother last night and as we talked I started to cry. I just told her I don’t know how much longer I can hold on for. I have spent 15 years of my life locked away for something I never did and after a while you start to lose all hope. I tell you this because when I see your letter that’s what I start feeling is hope and it scares me.
“I don’t even know if I should have told you that but it’s the truth. At times Bob I feel so all alone. I also do believe people have tried to help me but life moves so fast out there that I seem to always get lost in the process. I’m not saying that you would do this to me. It’s just how it has gone so far. So I fear the hope others bring into my life because I’m always left alone in the pain. My heart can only take so much pain. I’m sure you know that a lot of pain comes from inside as well. I’m glad I started this letter to you. I have wrote to you maybe 10 times already, I just never mailed them out. And believe me this one’s going.”
A couple weeks later, by chance, Jim and I encounter a lawyer friend, John Swomley. Swomley suggests a visit to Bee. I go with John and meet Bee face to face on June 3rd. And our journey with Bee really began.
Swomley eventually agreed to take the case — on the condition we raise money because he couldn’t afford to do it pro bono. And raise money we did — hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the process we first formed the Bernard Justice Committee and later helped form the National Center for Reason and Justice, devoted to helping other victims of our dysfunctional criminal-justice system.
We also began visiting Bee every week. Eventually our friend Frank Kane joined us on these visits. Bee was a delight to visit. Once we all got over our initial shyness, we discovered a young man (he’d just turned 32 when I met him) who was not only very bright, but very funny. He was a great story teller, and he would voice not only all of the characters in the story but any animals that were involved. One of my favorites involved the time he surrepitiousy fed a tray of meat juices to a vegetarian dog.
And so time passed. Slowly. The District Attorney stonewalled us every inch of the way. For many years the DA’s office refused to turn over the videotapes that eventually exonerated him. It was seven years later — June of 2006 — that Bee was finally released upon being granted a new-trial motion. The DA continued to fight us for three more years until the Appeals Court handed down a ruling that essentially exonerated Bee and strongly hinted that the DA — now Judge Daniel Ford — was guilty of prosecutorial misconduct. (Judges rarely slap the hands of other judges.) DA David Capeless finally threw in the towel.
Bee’s struggles continued. He filed a lawsuit against the firm that had done his do-nothing appeal and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. He should have received $500,000 from the state, but Attorney General Martha Coakley had the audacity to try to deny him any compensation. (Coakley is from western Massachusetts and has close ties to the people who railroaded Bee, including her cousin, a Pittsfield detective. Bee was in the process of suing the detective when he committed suicide after he himself was convicted of rape.) Bee eventually collected $400,000.
Bee, by the way, was still fighting Coakley when he died. He’d been told that as part of the settlement his criminal record would be expunged. Coakley refused to go along. If she didn’t have a heart of ice, she could agree to the expungement now that Bee is gone. But I am quite sure she will not.
With his settlement, Bee and his partner David bought a lovely house in Fitchburg and also another building containing 5 rental units.
Both Bee and David, unfortunately, had suffered severe health problems due to the years of terrible prison diet and lack of access to anything resembling adequate health care. (Such are Massachusetts prisons.) Bee developed chronic pancreatitus, which often caused him enormous pain.
The last time Jim and I saw Bee was two weeks ago yesterday, when we visited with our friend Robert from North Carolina. We spent the day with them and had a great time. Bee cooked us two excellent meals. We spent the afternoon exploring Fitchburg and a lovely park nearby that they were both fond of.
While I’ve never been a parent, I think I can say with some justification that Bee was like a son to us. We certainly loved him like a son. And I know that he loved us.
So farewell Bee. You were a wonderful person. I hope we can learn from your sufferings and prevent other innocents from being persecuted as you were.