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Video Kept From Defendant Finally Sets Him Free, 21 Years Later

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Bernie Baran sits at his home in Woburn, Mass.

BOSTON (AP) Bernard Baran lost a great portion of his life for crimes he says he never committed.

He was 19, working as an assistant at a day care center, when his life went completely off the rails. Now he is a middle-aged man with a smoker's cough, newly in charge of what's left of his life, working as a landscaper in Boston.

In the early 1980s, as an openly gay high school dropout in a blue-collar Massachusetts town, he was accused of molesting the children in his care. The country was gripped by a series of panic-fueled day care sex scandals. He was convicted and sentenced to three concurrent life terms.

There was evidence in his favor — hours of videotaped interviews with the children — but jurors, Baran and his attorney never saw all of them.

At trial, the prosecutor left out the ones in which Baran's charges said they'd never been harmed by him.

"You could hear the children saying I didn't do anything to them," he says.

In 2006, at age 42, Baran walked out of prison after serving 21 years. A judge overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial, citing the incompetence of his trial lawyer and the videotapes, which had recently resurfaced after years of being lost among boxes of evidence.

In May, the district attorney dropped all charges against Baran.

His case had followed a tortured path — the first complaint came from a drug-addicted couple, acting as narcotics informants, who told their police connection they "didn't want no homo" watching their son. One day, they said, the boy's penis had blood on it.

Baran was eventually arrested. His photo appeared in the local newspaper. One by one, five sets of parents came forward to say their daughters and sons had been molested.

Convicted in 1985, Baran lost his first appeal. For the next nine years, he had no lawyer because his family couldn't afford one. He was transferred from prison to prison after being beaten, sexually assaulted in the shower and having his eye split open by an inmate's fist.

"If you're considered a child molester, you are the bottom of the barrel," Baran said. "To be considered a gay child molester? That's the worst of the worst."

But in June 2004, Baran got a new legal team, courtesy of a local advocacy group. And the missing videotaped interviews were finally found in an evidence room, filed with tapes of drunken-driving arrests.

Appellate attorney John Swomley watched them all. "It was like, 'Oh, my God,"' he said.

In one, a 6-year-old boy is being questioned. "The kid keeps saying over and over, 'Where's my prize? You promised me a prize! I want my prize now!"' Swomley said.

In others, children say Baran never touched their private parts. In some, children said he did, often after being repeatedly asked the same question until it is answered affirmatively, according to Swomley.

The trial prosecutor had only shown an edited tape of the latter interviews, Swomley said.

Baran knows he could sue Berkshire County, home to expensive vacation estates and breathtaking views, alleging wrongful prosecution. He doesn't know if that would make him feel any better.

"It doesn't seem like it's enough," he said. "Unless there's some kind of change in the system that would make it impossible for this to happen to someone else."

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