Someone recently came across These Stone Walls by accident, and spent a few hours reading the three-part Case History above. When he finished, he wrote me a letter. “I don’t know why you haven’t lost your faith,” he wrote. “And I don’t know why you haven’t lost your mind.” I wonder which would be the first to go. There are lots of people around me here with a tentative grasp on both.
For a long time in prison, anger was my most available emotion. It devastated my faith, and it turned my own mind against me. Anyone who has ever struggled with chronic anger will agree that its most destructive force is aimed at one’s self. I think it’s even more self-destructive for a priest. It’s difficult for many priests to let anger show. I never, ever take anger out on the people around me. It would just simmer and burn inside until some part of my mind and soul began to give way under its weight.
It took a long time for me to put anger aside. I had to learn to channel its simmering heat into surrender and sacrifice. This is a process, not an event. It’s a work in progress, and sometimes I backslide into the righteous anger borne of false witness. How could I not?
I felt a grim reminder of it all yesterday when I read the story of James “Jamie” Bain. In a Florida courtroom in 1974, nineteen-year-old Jamie Bain was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and raping a nine-year-old boy. It was a heinous crime, and Jamie endured heinous treatment in prison because of it.
Thirty-five years passed. Then, a week before Christmas last month, Jamie walked out of a Florida courtroom a free man after it was proven that Jamie had no connection whatsoever to the crime. The 19-year old turned 54 in prison.
DNA evidence preserved from the crime scene absolutely excluded Jamie Bain as a suspect in the crime. For 35 years, the real criminal walked free while Jamie suffered decades of being labeled a child rapist in prison. On the steps of the courthouse after his chains were removed, he faced a small group of family and reporters. He asked to be taken home to his 77-year-old mother. She was 42 when Jamie was taken off to prison. He also asked for a Dr. Pepper. It had been 35 years.
Across the nation, 247 wrongfully convicted prisoners have been released after preserved DNA evidence proved that the wrong person was serving the prison sentence. Most were convicted of sexual assault, and many served 20 years or more in prison before being exonerated.
In the case of Jamie Bain, the sole evidence against him was an eyewitness identification by the traumatized nine-year-old victim of the awful crime. The boy described his attacker’s bushy sideburns. His uncle, a high school principal at the time, said, “That sounds like Jamie Bain.” That was all it took. When a photo lineup was placed before the boy, he picked out Jamie Bain. Now, 35 years later, there are lingering questions about how much police detectives steered the boy toward that photo.
The most sordid aspect of this story is the behavior of prosecutors long after the trial. Multiple petitions to have the DNA evidence retested were thrown out of court when prosecutors vehemently opposed them. The Innocence Project got involved with their own attorneys, and finally the DNA was tested. A prosecutor conceded to the judge that Jamie Bain had no connection to this crime.
“I’m not angry,” Jamie Bain said on the courthouse steps last month. “I’ve got God.” I’d say it’s the other way around. God’s got Jamie Bain. What else could have preserved his soul and his mind for 35 years of mistreatment in prison?
In addition to the 247 men exonerated by retested DNA evidence, there are also exonerations when no real crime was ever committed at all. In June of last year, a Berkshire County, Massachusetts judge announced that all charges were being dropped against Bernard Baran who also went to trial for child rape at the age of 19. He was released at the age of 44 after spending 24 years in prison for a crime that now appears never to have taken place at all. The judge who released him declared that Bernard’s lawyer at trial was incompetent and prosecutors withheld crucial evidence of Bernard’s innocence.
That evidence consisted of videotapes of interviews with the child “victims.” The tapes showed them insisting that no sexual assaults ever took place while interrogators kept asking the same questions over and over until the children changed their story. All the children’s denials were edited out of the tapes before they were presented to Bernard’s defense lawyer – and to the jury.
Bernard Baran was himself raped and beaten during his more than two decades of wrongful imprisonment. The National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org) sponsored Bernard Baran’s new appeals, and helped win his release. The NCRJ also sponsors my defense, and I am most grateful for their advocacy. I highly recommend spending some time at their website, and at a new related blog, Friends of Justice.
Sometimes, the prosecutorial misconduct in sexual abuse cases is just a subtle form of “spin.” In one now thoroughly discredited sexual abuse case that has been widely written about – the Massachusetts case against the Amirault family – the specter of child pornography rose to the surface. When not a shred of evidence for it was found, the prosecutor said to the news media, “the fact that child pornography wasn’t found doesn’t mean it never existed.” So, the absence of evidence is evidence of evidence!
TERROR IN PENNSYLVANIA
Two months ago, Representative Tom Murt filed legislation in Pennsylvania that would increase penalties for knowingly filing a false police report about a crime. The legislation was inspired by something that happened a decade earlier to Michael Gallagher, a highly respected, and now retired, Abington, PA public school teacher.
I am proud to write that Michael Gallagher is a frequent commentator on These Stone Walls. He’s a devout Catholic with a strong sense of God’s justice and mercy. I have been very moved by Michael’s devotion to his Church and faith. It’s a fidelity that centers him and empowers his personal commitment to justice – a commitment that began when Michael lived through a dedicated teacher’s worst nightmare.
Michael had been a respected and highly praised teacher for 26 years when the police showed up to arrest him on January 22, 1998. A former student had claimed to police that Michael repeatedly raped her a dozen years earlier in the 1985-1986 school year.
“I was thrown in jail . . . and then paraded in handcuffs to the District Justice’s office with every major news channel there,” Michael said.
Michael was arrested, booked, and finally released when he and his wife put up their house to secure a $150,000 bail requirement.
Michael was then suspended without pay from the teaching position he held with professional respect for 26 years. The 23-year-old former student claimed that Michael raped her more than 20 times. Michael’s face was plastered on newspapers and in the evening news throughout the region, a tactic often employed by prosecutors and contingency lawyers to generate more claims against the accused. For ten months, Michael, his wife, Betty, and their three sons ages 18, 24, and 30 braced for a high profile trial. Trial by media and innuendo was already well underway.
Every step of the way, Michael and Betty wondered how they would cope when the money ran out. In addition to the suspension without pay, the Gallaghers faced $45,000 in legal fees to defend Michael. Michael’s friends and family stood solidly by him. Perhaps the most telling statement of support came from Betty:
“I think I know my husband after 32 years of marriage.” I have no doubt!
In Cotton Mather’s 1692 essay, “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” Mather defended the “justice” of the Salem witch Trials. Among other “proofs” utilized was a practice of binding a suspected witch’s hands and feet, tying a heavy stone around her neck, and throwing her into a pond. If she somehow managed to free herself, this was evidence that she was guilty of witchcraft and she was hanged. If the accused sank to the bottom and drowned … well, maybe she was innocent after all. This was the state of juridical due process in 1692 Puritan America.
When I wrote “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul” for Priests in Crisis two weeks ago, I mentioned that a claim of sexual abuse is far more devastating for the innocent than for the guilty. I had Michael Gallagher in mind when I wrote that. On October 20, 1998, Michael realized that his criminal trial was but a month away, and that a group of 12 strangers would determine his guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the 60-year-old teacher would face a long prison sentence. The thought of possibly going to prison for something that never happened was unbearable. “That was the worst day,” Michael said.
The next day, October 21, 1998, Michael’s lawyer showed up at his door. He told Michael to pick a date for a celebration. The charges had been dropped because prosecutors somehow learned that the 23-year-old accuser had made the entire story up. It was over, but not before Michael had to pay again to have his record cleared after he was exonerated.
Is such a thing ever really over? Michael, being Michael, immediately turned to advocacy for other victims of false allegations. The 23-year-old accuser simply walked away from the case with no accountability whatsoever. Michael Gallagher can best describe the spiritual and emotional devastation this false allegation exacted from him and his family.
Last month, a Massachusetts high school teacher was exonerated after facing a nearly identical plight. A 14-year-old student accused him of sexual assault. Months later, his life in near ruins, the teacher was exonerated at trial when it was learned that the girl made up the story because the teacher had reprimanded her in class. Here in prison, men often joke about how easy it is to set someone up in this way. Some have openly asked me for the names of priests who might have been present in their childhood communities so they can bring an accusation for money. (See “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud.”).
A few months ago, a self-described member of Voice of the Faithful wrote a scathing message to me. The writer, a retired teacher, declared that any effort to revisit the case against me is “nothing but a misguided right-wing conspiracy.”
The man’s criticism was responded to by a friend who asked him what makes him feel so immune in an arena in which anyone can be accused by anyone, from decades ago, and with no evidence whatsoever. His blustering response was, “I have absolutely no fear of EVER being accused of such a thing.” Well, neither did Michael Gallagher. Neither did I until it happened.
AGAINST THY NEIGHBOR
Dean Koontz is the most popular writer here. His books in the prison library where I work are checked out more than any others. I’ve read that Dean Koontz is a devout Catholic, a fact that made me think better of him as a person if not as a writer. I just find his books to be too scary, and I have more than my share of scary stuff in my life already.
Dean Koontz doesn’t even register on the scary-meter, however, when compared with The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and literary skill. Her 2003 book, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness and Other Terrors of our Time (Wall Street Journal Books, 2003) brought chills that would make even Dean Koontz shiver. What made her book so terrifying is the fact that it’s true. A Washington Times reviewer wrote of it:
“[No Crueler Tyrannies] should be required reading for prosecutors, judges and governors, because it is a testimony to the way our legal system can be manipulated, where the power of suggestion gets in the way of truth.”
One of the quotes on the “About” page on These Stone Walls is from the Book of Exodus 20:16 – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The prohibition is repeated in the Book of Deuteronomy 5:20. It does not refer to the casual stretching of the truth that occurs in office gossip around the water cooler or between neighbors – though I don’t underestimate the damage that can take place from gossip. The Commandment specifically refers to false testimony in a juridical proceeding. This became all the more crucial for a system in which one person’s word could condemn another. The Book of Deuteronomy addressed this directly:
“A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense … Only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man . . . and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he meant to do to his brother; you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.” (Dt 19: 15-19).
How is it, then, that priests accused from twenty, thirty, or forty years ago – with no evidence whatsoever beyond the word of someone who stands to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars – are presumed by so many to be guilty?
I think Jamie Bain, Michael Gallagher, Bernard Baran, and the hundreds of others who have been exonerated after long and hard fought battles for the sake of their names, have something to tell us about the power of false witness. We should listen to them.
And I should listen to Jamie Bain who stood on the courthouse steps last month after 35 years of wrongful imprisonment and declared to us all,
“I’m not angry. I’ve got God.”