Judge limits testimony about earlier fires in Baye case
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Crews demolish the Yeskie house on Fair Street three days after the fatal fire. Purchase photo reprints »
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Anthony Baye consults with attorneys David Hoose, second from left, and Thomas Lesser in one of many pretrial hearings in Baye's upcoming murder and arson trial.. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Jurors in the Anthony Baye arson trial next month will hear evidence that he allegedly started five fires around Hawley Street between May and November of 2009 as well as more than a dozen fires that killed two men and set the city on edge Dec. 27, 2009. But they will not learn anything about seven fires set in 2007.
That is the gist of a 21-page decision issued by Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who ruled April 11 that she would not dismiss the 42-count indictment against Baye, as the defense team had asked.
Baye, 27, of 85 Hawley St., has pleaded not guilty to 42 charges related to three sets of arson fires in Northampton, including two counts of murder in connection with the Dec. 27, 2009, fires that killed Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and Paul Yeskie Jr., 39, and destroyed their 17 Fair St. home as well as a home on Union Street. Baye has been held without bail since his arrest on the charges in January 2010.
In her decision, Sweeney “severed” the group of fires, referred to as the “Group One,” set on Hawley, Market and Summer streets and Eastern Avenue from Jan. 19, 2007, to Dec. 7, 2007, which means the jury will not hear any testimony about those fires.
“The defendant would be prejudiced by joining the Group One fires to the others,” Sweeney ruled. “To try the Group One fires with either or both of the other groupings would be to invite the jury to assume what the commonwealth would need to prove — that they were the work of the same perpetrator.” That, Sweeney ruled, “is not in the interests of justice.”
On the other hand, according to Sweeney, the fires known as the “Group Two” fires — car, porch and trash can fires from May 2, 2009, to Nov. 10, 2009, on Eastern Avenue, and Hawley, Cherry and Hancock streets — were so close in time to the 14 fires set Dec. 27, 2009, that the jury should be allowed to hear about them.
“It is appropriate to join the Group Two and Group Three fires. The last of the Group Two fires occurred approximately six and a half weeks before the Group Three fires. Similar or greater intervals were seen between the individual fires in Group Two,” Sweeney writes in her decision.
She also wrote: “There are additional facts suggesting that Group Two and Group Three were related. The Group Two fires were clustered on or near a north-south axis containing the defendant’s home on Hawley Street. The Group Three fires included one within this area (Union Street) and otherwise in large part enclosed the Group Two fire sites in a loose ellipse, which supports the prosecution’s view that they represent an outward expansion of the pattern.”
Meanwhile, Sweeney’s decision, which summarized the case against Baye, offered a detailed look at what prosecutors told the grand jury that indicted Baye — and what they hope to present to a jury in his upcoming trial, including these allegations:
∎ After the so-called Group Two fires began, investigators installed a surveillance camera on a pole outside 85 Hawley St., directing it at a bait car that was parked, unlocked, on Eastern Avenue, in an effort to catch on camera the serial arsonist setting a fire. On Dec. 27, 2009, when the fires were being reported, Baye was “sighted several times in the areas of the fires. At some point between 1 and 2 a.m., the Hawley Street camera set up to record the so-called bait car on Eastern Avenue recorded the defendant’s car driving in that area.
∎ The day after the fires, Baye told a friend he had “blacked out from drinking, did not know where he had been and needed an alibi for any possible retroactive drunken driving charge.”
∎ The night of the Dec. 27 fires, Baye gave an acquaintance a ride to the 7-Eleven store on King Street, but then abandoned him at the store shortly after 1 a.m.
∎ In an interview with detectives at the Northampton police station Jan. 4, 2010, Baye’s father was present, and asked his son if he had been at the Yeskie house that night, to which his son replied, “I have no recollection of that.” When his father said, “If you didn’t do it, say it, but what were you doing?” Baye did not respond.
∎ In high school, Baye was known to use a lighter to burn bits of lint off the socks of people when they were wearing them.
∎ He kept a box of cigarette lighters at his home.
∎ Baye was known to drink heavily, and used other drugs including marijuana and cocaine, during which he engaged in “mischievous or destructive behavior” such as damaging a jeep, urinating on a car, jumping on its hood and kicking its windshield, throwing shoes of partygoers into a river and throwing eggs at houses. A friend said he’d seen “worrisome megalomaniacal behavior” by Baye.
∎ The grand jury was also told that there have been no more suspicious fires in that area of the city since Baye’s arrest.
In response to defense assertions that the grand jury heard “tainted” evidence that should lead to the dismissal of the indictments, Sweeney countered that “while some of the information presented before the grand jury was unnecessary or irrelevant and may well be inadmissible at trial, it was not so prejudicial or improper as to taint the process and undermine the indictments.”
Regarding objections to information about Baye’s use of alcohol and other drugs, she wrote that the information is “pertinent to an understanding of the defendant’s possible motive or state of mind, and not simply an effort to portray him as someone with criminal propensities.” She acknowledged that some of the information might be inadmissible at trial, but contends it did not make the indictments improper.
Northampton defense attorney Thomas Lesser, representing Baye, said Sweeney’s ruling essentially stated that there was circumstantial evidence sufficient to bring the case to a jury. He said it was not a surprise, and will not change how he handles the defense side of the case.
“The standard for whether a grand jury returns an indictment is very low. The standard at trial will be far different,” Lesser said.
Special prosecutor Brett Vottero said the prosecution team has been awaiting the Sweeney decision. “It was a ruling we needed to have before we could move forward,” he said.
He also noted that just because Sweeney’s decision said information presented to the grand jury was proper, that does not mean it will be allowed at trial.
“There’s always a difference between the rules of admissibility for a grand jury and what is allowed at trial,” Vottero said.
Jury selection in the case is now scheduled for May 6. The jury will be picked in Springfield, but the case will be tried in Northampton.