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Antisemitism at trial overturns Berkshire County arson conviction

A gavel and legal book.
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A gavel and legal book.

A New York man convicted of burning his Berkshire County vacation home in the early 1980's has had his conviction vacated. Barry Jacobson's vindication was announced during a virtual press conference Tuesday.

He was convicted in 1983 of arson in connection with the fire in Richmond, Massachusetts, and served a fraction of his six-month sentence. Jacobson lost an earlier appeal, despite two jurors accusing the foreperson of making antisemitic remarks about Jacobson, who is Jewish, during the trial.

His attorney, Robert Cordy, said the prosecution relying on a racist stereotype, implied that Jacobson set the fire for the insurance money.

There were also serious questions about the way state police handled evidence in the case. An expert in the field of arson investigation said the chain of custody procedures used by investigators made the evidence unreliable.

Jacobson also applied for a pardon, but that meant he would have had to admit his guilt, something he refused to do.

Last year, Jacobson's attorneys looked to have the conviction vacated again in superior court. Citing new case law and the statements from the jurors Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington agreed with the defense and the court, and declined to pursue a new trial.

"It was clear to me that this verdict was tainted by stereotypes and bias and that there was absolutely no way that my office could ethically or morally defend Mr. Jacobson's conviction," Harrington said.

Jacobson was not present at the virtual press conference. In a web posting on the the website of the Innocense Project, an advocacy group which worked on Jacobson's behalf, he said:

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

Jacobson's attorney, Cordy, said the conviction hurt his client's commercial real estate career and his life as a whole. He said his client managed to push through, but the damage was done.

"In terms of trauma for him, personally, and his family, that really can never be undone," Cordy said.

During the latest bid to be vindicated, Jacobson had help from the Anti-Defamation League of New England as well. Its director, Robert Trestan said even this incident from nearly 40 years ago can be a lesson for today.

"The case remains a vivid reminder of the danger posed by antisemitism and the need for greater education efforts at all levels," Trestan said.

This report includes information from The Associated Press.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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