Man, 78, exonerated in decades-old arson case over juror anti-Semitism 

Served 42 days in jail in 1982 but always maintained his innocence

A MAN CONVICTED of arson nearly 40 years ago for burning down his vacation home in the Berkshires has been exonerated, due partly to anti-Semitic comments made by jurors in his case.  

Barry Jacobson, now 78, was convicted in a jury trial of setting fire in January 1982 to his home in the small Western Mass. town of Richmond. He was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $10,000. He served 42 days in jail, then was paroled. He has consistently maintained his innocence. 

Speaking at a press conference held via Zoom on Tuesday, Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington said when she reviewed the court record at the request of Jacobson’s attorney, former Supreme Judicial Court justice Robert Cordy, she was struck by the credibility of jurors who came forward soon after the 1983 trial to report the anti-Semitic statements. “It was clear to me that this verdict was tainted by stereotypes and bias and there was absolutely no way my office could ethically or morally defend Mr. Jacobson’s conviction,” Harrington said. 

Barry Jacobson

Cordy said Jacobson has been “haunted by this wrongful conviction” for nearly 40 years. “Time and again it affected his career, his business, his family, and his community,” Cordy said. “It was beyond painful and as he expressed to me many times, it is an experience he would not wish on anyone.” 

This is not the first time the anti-Semitism issue has been raised. After his conviction, Jacobson filed for a new trial, arguing that jurors had made anti-Semitic comments. According to court motions, two jurors said the forelady repeatedly referred to Jacobson as “one of the New York Jews who think they can come up here and get away with anything,” while another juror called him “a rich New York Jew.”  

A Massachusetts Appeals Court panel upheld Jacobson’s conviction in 1985, after the forelady denied making the remarks, and other jurors said they did not remember hearing any anti-Semitism.  

In 2021, Jacobson again filed for a new trial. The Innocence Project, which focuses on overturning wrongful convictions, had by then taken up his case.  

While the Appeals Court found that several jurors denied hearing the anti-Semitic remarks, Cordy’s brief said several jurors later withdrew or qualified their denials. Harrington said the legal standard related to juror bias had also changed by then, putting an increased burden on prosecutors to argue that bias did not impact the jury’s decision. Cordy said it is now clearer in the law that a defendant has the right to have every juror be impartial.  

In January, Harrington decided to agree to the request to clear Jacobson’s conviction. “The Commonwealth agrees with the defendant that his conviction for arson should be vacated…on grounds that the jury deliberations were infected by anti-Semitic bias and as a result, the defendant did not receive a trial before an impartial jury,” Harrington’s chief of appeals, Jennifer Zalnasky, wrote in a court brief. 

According to facts laid out in court documents, Jacobson’s vacation house burned down in the early morning of January 29, 1982.  

As outlined in the 1985 Appeals Court ruling, the fire alarm went off, and when the fire department could not reach Jacobson at his home outside New York City they called the house’s caretaker. The caretaker found Jacobson and a friend stuck in a snowbank near the house. They said they had driven from New York early in the morning to get Jacobson’s jeep, which he kept at the Richmond home and which his friend wanted to borrow.  

Investigators concluded that the fire had been started by the application of an open flame to liquid fuel placed on a floor. They found the house’s doors were locked, there were no footprints in the snow leading to nearby woods, and the fire alarm appeared to have been reset. Prosecutors argued that Jacobson had a motivation to burn down the home. He had spent between $150,000 and $225,000 in improvements after a well ran dry, appeared to have a temporary cash flow problem, and had a few months earlier increased the insurance on the house.  

Cordy wrote in his brief asking for the conviction to be vacated that the case against Jacobson was circumstantial. 

The brief identified problems with physical evidence in the case. According to the filing, initial samples of the carpet in the house did not turn up anything flammable; it was only a year later than an unsealed vial was found in a State Police trooper’s locker and tested positive for gasoline. Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck said the lack of a chain of custody for the evidence was “extraordinarily improper.” Scheck said other evidence used by arson experts in the 1980s was based on “junk science.” 

The brief also focused on the anti-Semitism by the jury forelady. “Lurking behind the evidence was a rising tide of anti-Semitism,” Cordy wrote. “Barry Jacobson after all was a ‘rich Jew from New York,’ who had a vacation home in Berkshire County. It surfaced in how the case was presented and, most significantly, in the thoughts and prejudices of at least one of the local jurors.” 

Attorneys for the New England Anti-Defamation League, including ADL regional director Robert Trestan, submitted a letter to the court arguing that Jacobson’s right to a fair trial was compromised by juror bias, and the prosecution’s strategy fed into that bias by painting Jacobson as a “greedy avaricious lover of money.”  

“The stereotypes that appear to have been invoked during juror deliberations are wholly consistent with the antisemitic trope of Jewish ‘greed,’ were directly tied the alleged motive in this case, and were only reinforced by the prosecution, even if unintentionally,” the ADL attorneys wrote. 

Trestan on Tuesday called the case a “vivid reminder of the danger posed by anti-Semitism.” 

Jacobson’s friend was also convicted on charges related to the arson, but his conviction was overturned on appeal.  

Jacobson applied for pardons multiple times but was told he could not secure a recommendation for a pardon because he did not admit guilt. Because of the conviction, he could not obtain a real estate broker’s license, which was his profession before his conviction.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Jacobson has nonetheless been chairman and CEO of a successful New York realty firm. He has been active in numerous charitable causes, receiving awards for his humanitarian work. 

“He’s made it through in some respects, but in terms of the trauma for him personally and his family, that really can never be undone,” Cordy said.