Doing Justice

Doing Justice

Poli Psy

By Judith Levine [08.02.06]

Hope moves every fight against injustice. This hope is not, as Emily Dickinson would have it, a thing with feathers. It is made of steel, plus some stimulant elixir -- maybe lunacy. The Italian political theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci called it "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."

One story of a massive injustice being undone is also the story of two hopeful men. First, the victim: Bernard "Bee" Baran, whose awful distinction is to be the first person falsely convicted of child abuse in a daycare center, and also one of the last to be exonerated. Last month, after 21 years' imprisonment, he was freed on bond, awaiting retrial. The other is the man most responsible for Baran's release: Bob Chatelle, a Boston activist whom I have known, worked with, and admired for 15 years.

In 1984, Baran was 19, a gay high-school dropout employed as a teacher's assistant in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, daycare center. A couple of parents -- drug addicts living in chaos and violence -- objected to his sexuality and demanded his dismissal. When the center, a well-run and respected place, declined to dump Baran, the couple accused him of molesting their son. Panic ensued.

America was in the clutches of a sex panic. Strange and terrifying -- and, in hindsight, unbelievable -- accusations were galloping across the nation. In case after near-identical case, beloved teachers, parents and babysitters were charged with perpetrating sadistic sexual tortures and "satanic rituals" upon children. Small genitals slathered with peanut butter and licked off, animals slaughtered in the classroom, anal rape with scissors: These stories were coaxed from toddlers through long, suggestive, haranguing and bribing interviews. The tapes were redacted -- or, in Baran's case, "lost" -- before juries saw them. Eyewitness testimony was absent, forensic evidence gossamer. The year of Baran's indictment, Massachu- setts fielded 808 child-abuse complaints, 163 of them involving children ages 3 to 6. Later national studies concluded that two-thirds of such claims were unfounded.

Although lacking the sensationalism, Baran's case, as detailed in Worcester Superior Court Judge Francis R. Fecteau's ruling for a retrial, could fill a textbook for a course called Kangaroo Court 101. Along with all the dubious, and subsequently discredited, tactics above, the prosecution depended on homophobic conflations of homosexuality with pedophilia to convict Baran: The DA called him "a chocoholic in a candy store." As for the defense, Fecteau barely disguises his contempt for the bumbling negligence of a lawyer hired out of the phone book by Baran's mother, who sold her car to pay the $500 retainer.

On January 30, 1985, after nine days' testimony and three and a half hours' deliberation, Bernard Baran was convicted of molesting five children and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences. A 90-pound kid with a pitiful excuse for a moustache, a queer convicted child molester, he became carrion in Walpole prison's food chain. In the first four years, he says, he was raped 30 to 40 times. Things got marginally better when he was moved to a sex offender treatment facility in Bridgewater. But because he maintained his innocence -- and admitting your crime is the first step toward accredited reform -- Baran never qualified for parole.

Even while accusers recanted and exculpatory evidence surfaced, the judges, many of whom had made their reputations on prosecutions such as Baran's, refused to reopen the case. Years passed. Baran talked suicide; he slit his wrists.


It may have been at Baran's emotional nadir, in 1998, when others of Massachu- setts' innocent accused were finding their ways to freedom, that Bob Chatelle learned of the case from Debbie Nathan, the first journalist to skeptically investigate and debunk, in the Village Voice, the myth of daycare abuse. Baran's story must have touched Chatelle personally. A fierce champion of sexual and civil rights and liberties, Chatelle had created a wildly diverse and opinionated listserv community called Friends of Justice. He was a gay man old enough to have been queer before Stonewall; he had survived the anti-gay witch hunts that resurfaced in Boston with each wave of a growing pedophile panic.

Chatelle made his living as a computer geek; his boyfriend, Jim D'Entremont, was a playwright flogging gay plays and writing for a gay tourism rag that also ran long pieces about sexual politics -- taking minority, sometimes despised, positions within the community. Chatelle knew marginalization, demonization; he knew injustice. He was also an alcoholic in recovery, a task requiring a tolerance for slow progress. Maybe he had patience, even a penchant, for lost causes.

Chatelle wrote to Baran repeatedly. Almost a year later, in 1999, Baran replied: "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... When I see your letter [I start feeling] hope and it scares me."

Chatelle began devoting endless hours to realizing Baran's wary hope. He founded a defense committee and, in 2002, the National Center for Reason & Justice, to educate the public about false accusations of crimes against children and the panics that produce them. Through NCRJ (on whose board I serve) Chatelle connected Baran with attorney John Swomley, who wrote the retrial motion and procured the uncut interviews that will likely exonerate Baran. NCRJ also collects donations for defendants whose innocence it determines to be probable. Baran's legal bills now near a half-million dollars.

To members of Friends of Justice and the NCRJ board, Chatelle's listserv posts can sometimes seem angry and almost cynical, as if all politicians were bums and all politics a waste of time. Moreover, NCRJ's work, of which Chatelle does about 99 percent, is demoralizing. Every week, fresh letters arrive from people -- usually poor, uneducated people -- begging for help. Many have exhausted their options. Some have been in prison for years.

The press has tired of the child-abuse panic. Meanwhile, penalties for sex crimes against children grow more Draconian: Oklahoma recently became the fifth state to propose executing offenders. Yet Chatelle keeps on writing letters to the editor, visiting prisoners, holding their mothers' hands.

What sustains him? I wanted to know.

"I don't think I'm a cynic," he emailed me. "A cynic says: It's no use fighting. I always felt it essential to fight the bums, even though they have the money and power and ordinary citizens have very little . . .

"Injustice really pisses me off," Chatelle continued. "But

I hope anger is not my main motive. Anger can give you energy. But if it gets out of control, it becomes destructive and counterproductive."

Much of what he knows about activism comes from his fellows in AA, Chatelle wrote: "I've learned to not quit before the miracle happens."


Just about everyone involved in Bee Baran's case considers his release a near-miracle. But the real miracle is Baran himself, who has emerged from prison a whole man, hungry for happiness.

Those who know him wonder if he really would have taken his life. That's because, for 21 years, he held onto more than legal innocence. Another innocence -- belief in the goodness of others -- buoyed him. Mortally wronged, he resisted anger. Surrounded by bullshitters, manipulators and self-servers, by all accounts Baran stayed honest, straightshooting and kind.

He did not try to fit into an institution where, he said, "deviance runs rampant." Rather, he negotiated what he called his "differentness" to survive, playing the femme, humorously deflecting benign harassment in order to fend off worse assault. Perhaps it wasn't just a role: One of his first requests, once outside the gate, was to have his eyebrows waxed. If that doesn't say optimism, what does?

Until Baran's name is cleared, he is a registered sex offender. He must find a home and work, remake a life. Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless, in what the Berkshire Eagle called a "monomaniacal pursuit of Baran, despite all the evidence that the original trial was a travesty," is appealing Judge Fecteau's ruling.

Meanwhile, Baran is buttressed by his family and an extended network of supporters. And as the next, rugged chapters unfold, he and Chatelle have each other -- steely lunatic brothers.

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