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Man's wrongful conviction in Mass. overturned decades after juror made antisemitic remarks in case

Massachusetts prosecutors are dropping a decades-old arson case against a New York man in part because at least one juror made antisemitic remarks about him.

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington said Tuesday her office would end its case against Barry Jacobsen.

Jacobsen was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine after his 1983 conviction for setting a fire at his family’s vacation home in Richmond, Massachusetts. After he spent about one month in prison, it was revealed that at least one juror made antisemitic remarks during deliberations.

“As a prosecutor I have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to ensure that jury verdicts are rendered free from bias,” Harrington said at a press conference Tuesday. “The credible evidence of antisemitic juror statements undermine the fairness of this verdict and denied Mr. Jacobson his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury trial.”

In her sworn statement, Harrington said a sitting juror told the court that, “From the beginning of our deliberations, the forelady of the jury … repeatedly made references to Mr. Jacobson as being ‘one of those New York Jews who think they can come up here and get away with anything.’ ”

Harrington said Jacobsen’s conviction was now vacated, and the case against him dismissed. She made her announcements alongside Jacobsen’s attorneys, members of The Innocence Project and members of the Anti-Defamation League.

The nonprofit said it recorded more than 2,000 antisemitic acts of assault, vandalism and harassment across the U.S. in 2020. That was the third-highest year on record since ADL began tracking in 1979.

“This case is a vivid reminder of the danger posed by antisemitism and the need for greater education efforts at all levels,” said Robert Trestan, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s New England operations.

For years, there remained questions about the evidence presented against Jacobsen. Initial evidence from Jacobsen’s home — provided by state police — did not show gasoline or residue of another accelerant at the area said to be where the fire started. A year after the fire, however, a trooper said he found evidence in his locker that was brought to the state lab for testing. Gasoline residue was discovered in that vial and that was used as evidence against Jacobsen.

Jacobsen’s attorney, retired state Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, said Jacobsen lost his commercial real estate license as a result of the conviction. Cordy said Jacobsen tried to get a pardon, but that pursuit was impossible unless he confessed to committing the crime.

“For nearly 40 years, he was haunted by this wrongful conviction,” Cordy said. “It affected his career, his business, his family and his community. His one hope is that the unveiling of what can go wrong in our criminal justice system — as in this case, whether it disproportionately affects persons of color or other religious groups — will help others similarly situated and in the end prevent future victims of injustice.”

Jacobsen, in a statement released by Harrington’s office, said he was grateful to clear his name.

“Nearly 40 years ago, I was wrongfully convicted for a crime I didn’t commit. Antisemitism infected the prosecution and the jury deliberations,” Jacobsen wrote.

“This wrongful conviction has cast a painful shadow over my life. I am thankful to God, family, and friends. The evils of antisemitism and racism in our legal system must be fought relentlessly.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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