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Ward 3 residents watch from afar as Baye arson trial starts

  • Williams Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • 86, left, and 90 Williams Street in Northampton Monday.JERREY ROBERTS
  • 89, front, 86, left, and 90 Williams Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Williams Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Hawley Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • 26 Union Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • 17 Fair Street in Northampton Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

She waved, then set about mowing her neighbor’s small yard. “Just helping out,” she said.

Across the street, two teenagers were teaching a youngster how to ride a skateboard by first explaining why he needed to wear a helmet.

This is the kind of neighborhood much of Ward 3 fashions itself as, one of security and closeness. But that sense of safety took a big hit shortly after Christmas three years ago when an arsonist — who the prosecution will argue in court starting this week is one of their own set fires around the ward and elsewhere in the city.

As the trial for accused arsonist Anthony Baye, of 85 Hawley St., gets under way, many Ward 3 residents said they are longing for closure to the nightmarish event — even if that closure takes place in a Springfield courtroom.

Hampden Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney decided last week to switch course on a plan that called for holding the trial in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton, with jurors transported from Hampden County each day. Her ruling means that all of the proceedings, aside from a site tour, will take place in Hampden Superior Court in Springfield.

“You can imagine it was such a horrific time, a very frightening time,” said Graham, who has lived at 90 Williams St. for about a decade. “I think the general feeling is let’s just get it over with.”

Graham and others believe that as long as justice is served, they can live with the trial being held outside of Northampton. Others said they are disappointed that it will now be more difficult to attend such a pinnacle moment in the ward’s history.

Sam Welson, a Kingsley Avenue resident, said both drawing the jury from Hampden County and moving the trial’s location seemed the right decision, noting that jurors from outside the city will be better positioned to be objective.

“Moving the trial makes sense,” said Welson, who was walking his dog through Ward 3 Sunday. “He’ll get a fairer trial. Jurors will be less emotional.”

Many residents interviewed Sunday were in agreement that pulling the jury from Hampden County is the best way to ensure fairness, though a few expressed disappointment in the change of venue.

“It’s a bad idea,” Fred Zimnoch, of 23 Pomeroy Terrace, said of the move. Zimnoch had planned to attend every day of the trial. Now he’ll probably pick and choose the days he heads to Springfield.

Zimnoch is quick to add that Sweeney obviously has a better handle on the legal justifications for her decision, but he believes many residents were interested in attending the trial as a way to get closure on a chapter of the ward’s history that they want to forget.

“It (the fires) was a bad thing for us,” Zimnoch said. “I don’t even like thinking about it. I’d like to see some closure.”

Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels said he, too, was disappointed in the change of venue.

“It would have been easy for Ward 3 to see the trial if it was here in Northampton, but I understand the decision,” Freeman-Daniels said.

Freeman-Daniels said he believes the community is holding its breath about the trial’s outcome, especially after portions of Baye’s police interview were ruled inadmissible.

“I think the community is putting its collective consciousness into the trial from the outside,” he said.

Closure is a key point for many.

“This has been a long siege for the people of Ward 3,” said Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association who lives at 127 Bridge St. “There’s a sense that it’s time for this to come to conclusion. It’s been a long haul with a lot of ugly memories.”

Though many of his fellow residents had expressed an interest in attending the trial, Budgar said it’s unlikely he’ll make an appearance.

“It was tough enough to live through it and I’m not sure I want to relive it,” he said.

Several Ward 3 residents declined to comment on the Baye case Sunday afternoon, either because the case was “too raw” or because they did not want to speak about the Baye family.

“We know the family so we wouldn’t want to comment,” said one woman who lives not far from the Baye home on Hawley Street.

In court last week, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan argued that roughly 90 witnesses and 40 victims who will testify during the course of the two-week trial would be extremely inconvenienced by the venue change. Sweeney said she made the decision for logistical reasons, not to inconvenience or create a hardship for anyone.

One of the witnesses is Glenn Siegel, who lost his home on Union Street the night of the fires. Siegel said it’s less convenient for him, but added that it’s not a huge deal because he only has to testify once.

“If the judge thinks she can get a fairer trial, then I understand why,” said Siegel, who has moved back to Ward 3 and now lives on Bridge Street.

North Street resident Joan Rasool said she was surprised about the location change and expressed concern that moving the trial south will diminish participation from Ward 3 residents. She felt Baye would have received a fair trial in Northampton, but she can support the extra precaution if it helps lead to a fair trial.

“There’s a lot of concern in the neighborhood about this trial,” said Rasool, of 96 North St. “It seemed like an overabundance of caution, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Zimnoch was one of the first people at the courthouse in Springfield on Monday to watch an early hearing and the start of jury selection.

“It’s an event that’s unlike anything that has happened in quite a while,” he said.

In the end, Zimnoch believes the courts are doing all they can to make sure the proceedings are just for Baye.

“I don’t know what will happen, but he is getting a fair trial,” he said.

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