Bertha Shaw confirmed Anderson’s statements. "Joe Hill called me," she wrote in a personal memo dated January 31, 1989. "He said, ‘Someone in my family was accused of molestation, and they did not do it, so I know how you feel. But I also don’t want to go to jail for perjury.’" Hill was referring to his brother, Ray Hill, who was serving time for child abuse. Shaw also wrote that Joe Hill said he would call the next day, which he did. At that time, he apologized but told her that he could not take the chance of going to jail.
During a recent attempt to talk to Joe Hill at his home in Pittsfield, he slammed the door and refused to comment for this story. A letter mailed afterward went unanswered.
Despite contradictory statements, possible flaws in the interviewing techniques, and the disputed physical evidence, many stand by the jury’s verdict. To this day, some in the community say they never doubted Baran’s guilt.
"I thought he was a predator," Detective Peter McGuire, who worked on the investigation, said in a recent interview. "As a matter of fact, I mean, you’re talking 20 years ago, but what I thought strange was a guy his age ... would want to work in a child environment like this because it was rare back then that a male would [be a teacher at a day-care center]. Today it would be totally different."
When asked about whether Baran’s homosexuality played a role in that thinking, he said, "I thought it did back then. Today it wouldn’t shock me as much, but back then it did."
Today, Baran bears little resemblance to the shaken teenager who went to trial nearly 20 years ago. Gone are his wispy mustache and thin frame. His arms and legs have filled out from lifting weights and playing basketball. At 38, he is balding and his teeth have been dulled to the color of gunmetal.
Baran is serving his sentence at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, a medium-security facility for sex offenders. According to Baran, he was moved there after a series of violent attacks on him at other prisons. He said he’d been hit with fists, feet, and metal trays. Once an inmate elbowed him in the nose so hard it caused temporary paralysis on the left side of his face (see "The Catch-22 of Maintaining Innocence in Prison," page 2).
"Pedophiles and homosexuals are at the lowest end of the food chain in prison," Baran said in a recent interview. "There are no words to describe how horrible it’s been. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve survived this long."
In the nearly two decades since his convictions, Baran has continually fought for his freedom. His troubles have caught the attention of a growing band of advocates. Supporters set up a Web site devoted to his case. Columnist Katha Pollitt has written pro-Baran pieces for Nation.
In a recent editorial, the Berkshire Eagle urged a review of his case. "The sooner this odious case is retried, the better," it concluded.
Baran’s new lawyers, John Swomley and Harvey Silverglate, and defense-team member Pam Nicholson, intend to file a motion for a new trial. But even with the new revelations, Baran faces long legal odds in his bid to overturn his conviction.