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Editorial: Long road to arson trial in Anthony Baye case

Opening arguments are scheduled for Wednesday in one of the most important trials in recent Northampton history. On Page One today, residents of the neighborhood east of downtown reflect on the arson spree that killed two men nearly 3½ years ago and the fact that the case against Anthony Baye will soon be in the hands of a jury.

Every citizen wants a fair trial that determines responsibility and, if there is a conviction, allots punishment.

Lawyers for the defense have succeeded recently in securing several rulings that appear to bolster their side and appear to make it more difficult for prosecutors to prevail. Early legal skirmishes in a case like this produce dramatic headlines, in part because people want judicial wheels to turn after a long wait. But the trial is finally about to begin and the outcome will soon be known.

It is notoriously hard to prove arson, in part because fires consume physical evidence. In the years since Paul Yeskie Sr. and Paul Yeskie Jr. died, Baye’s defense has chipped away at the case the Northwestern district attorney’s office brought against him.

On Monday, in the second of two recent rulings that favored the defense, Judge Constance M. Sweeney said Baye can only be tried for fires that took place on Dec. 27, 2009, including the one that burned the Yeskies’ Fair Street home and took their lives.

Last month, Sweeney decided that prosecutors could not seek to link Baye to seven unexplained fires from 2007. And in a ruling Monday, she said prosecutors cannot connect the defendant to five fires in the same neighborhood in May through November of 2009.

These decisions give the defense fewer grounds for appeal, should there be a conviction. But they narrow the scope of the case that can be brought against Baye as the district attorney’s office seeks to prove he is responsible for two murders and multiple instances of arson.

The biggest setback for the prosecution was the May 2012 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court that a confession Baye made to investigators was obtained improperly and could not be used.

In the last few weeks, the prosecution and defense argued competing theories about the fires, including whether they could have been the work of one person, and even whether that person was a “serial” or “spree” arsonist. A expert summoned by the defense told Sweeney an arsonist isn’t usually both types.

The case now is about what happened Dec. 27, 2009, when more than a dozen fires erupted. Special prosecutor Brett Vottero must convince jurors that only Baye could have set the fires.

In our view, Sweeney has held the prosecution to tough but correct standards that protect this and every defendant from judicial overreaching. In one of her latest moves, the judge has decided that the trial itself should be held in Hampden County and not in Northampton.

Sweeney said she took this step to protect the integrity of the jury, and that too is a vital concern in any proceeding. It must trump the convenience of witnesses, crime victims or spectators. As Sweeney noted, the Springfield court is just down Interstate 91 and we no longer live “in the buggy days” when that trip might have been daunting.

Five jurors were chosen Monday. More will be seated today — and then it will be up to Vottero to show over the next two weeks or so — if indeed he can — that the investigation that led to Baye’s arrest just a week after the fires was solid and that the now 27-year-old defendant is the person whose acts terrorized a city.

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