SJC To Rule Soon on the Admissability of Anthony Baye’s Murder-Arson Confessions, Captured on Tape
The state’s highest court heard oral arguments last Nov. 9, and their ruling on admissibility of the 9-hour police interrogation could make or break the high-profile arson and murder case against suspect Anthony Baye. The defense says the cops went too far, lied about the law and made false promises of leniency to force a confession. Prosecutors say that Baye confessed willingly, but only after the State Police detectives destroyed his phony alibi.
By DAVID REID
NORTHAMPTON – It’s been more than four months since the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral arguments in the case of Anthony Baye, the city man charged with an outbreak of 15 fires on Dec. 27, 2009 that resulted in the deaths of a city man and his disabled son in their home on Fair Street.
The state’s highest court will rule whether tactics used by two State Police detectives violated Baye’s rights, and whether jurors will ever view the nine-hour tape where Baye, after lengthy interrogation, confesses to setting certain fires. The legal issue at hand is whether the confessions were illegally obtained. If so, the tape won’t be entered into evidence.
The justices, who take their time deciding cases that come before them, are expected to publish their decision later this month.
The decision could be precedent-setting, no matter which way it goes.
The Defense Appeal and the Stalled Jury Trial
Until the SJC acts, the Hampshire Superior Court case against Baye has stalled, put on ice since last summer when his lawyers appealed Hampshire Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney’s decision to admit the interrogation of Baye.
During that grilling – recorded on Jan. 4, 2010 in the Northampton police station, in a police car during a tour of several arson scenes, and at the Bluebonnet Diner for lunch – Baye admits setting about half of the 15 house- and car-fires that morning.
The tapes were played in open court here over three days last May after Baye’s defense team challenged the validity of the State Police tactics.
In court and in motions filed before and since, defense lawyers David Hoose and Thomas Lesser stated the detectives misled, lied to and falsely promised leniency for Baye, and thereby coerced him into the confessions. (See Northampton Media’s story on the interrogation here.)
In her Aug. 22, 2011 ruling to let jurors view the confession tapes at trial, Judge Sweeney harshly criticized several statements by the detectives. But she said Baye’s confessions came only after his false alibi – that he was watching a movie with a friend – was disproved by evidence his car was spotted near several of the fires. During the interrogation, detectives also said they had statements from the friend and Baye’s girlfriend that proved he had lied to police.
Sweeney also determined that the questionable police tactics did not overbear Baye’s will and did not coerce him into confessing.
Baye, the judge wrote, was a bright and strong-willed man who ultimately “felt trapped by the evidence, not by the behavior or questionable techniques of the troopers.”
Sweeney also refused to suppress the testimony of two police officers who each stopped and questioned Baye early that rainy morning, during which Baye lied about his whereabouts and about visiting his girlfriend. Sweeney said the stops, after Baye twice voluntarily pulled over his car, were “field interviews” in the fire zone during an unprecedented public emergency.
After Sweeney’s ruling, Baye’s lawyers filed an interlocutory (or pre-trial) appeal last Sept. 1, asking the SJC to throw out the police interrogation before the actual trial began. Lawyers for both sides submitted written briefs in that matter. On Sept. 9, SJC Justice Ralph Dreyfus Gants ruled that the appeal would be heard by the full court before the trial, as the defense team had requested.
The issues “raised by the suppression motion are important and difficult, the evidence the defendant seeks to suppress is central to the prosecution’s case, and the trial will be lengthy,” Judge Gant wrote. “The administration of justice is better served by resolving the issues raised by the suppression motion on interlocutory [pre-trial] appeal rather than by allowing the case to proceed to trial and, if the defendant were convicted, resolving them after final disposition.”
The SJC Hearing and the Oral Arguments
On Nov. 9, 2011, lawyers for both sides made their case in oral arguments before the justices. (To view the entire 32-minute video of the oral arguments, click here and select “View oral argument.”)
In advance of the hearing, the justices were given written briefs and a copy of the taped police interrogation of Baye.
Hoose, Baye’s lead attorney, was the first to address the court. He said the State Police detectives Paul Zipper and Michael Mazza had greatly overstepped their bounds, misstated the law on felony murder, and assured Baye they would lobby prosecutors to reduce the charges against him if he said the deaths of Paul Yeskie Sr. and Paul Yeskie Jr. were “an accident.”
Hoose also focused on a police cruiser-camera shot of what detectives told Baye showed him getting into his car on Union Street after a fire was set there. Baye was told the image, under magnification, revealed it was Baye’s license plate.
It wasn’t, however. Hoose said an FBI report last fall after examining the Union Street cruiser video proved the car was not Baye’s, as police had claimed.
According to Hoose, the experienced State Police detectives exaggerated the strength of their case, minimized the penalties if Baye were to admit he set the fires as a prank, and misstated the law. He described police tactics as disturbing “to a degree and to an extent not heretofore seen in any reported Massachusetts (court) decision.”
A viewing of the interrogation, Hoose argued, would show the SJC justices how detectives Mazza and Zipper manipulated his client, and “how effective the psychological domination was.”
Up next was veteran arson prosecutor Brett Vottero, appointed special prosecutor for this case last year by Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.
Vottero disputed Hoose’s view on the effectiveness of the detectives’ manipulative tactics, while also admitting they were troublesome.
First, Vottero argued, Baye was articulate and intelligent, alert and sober, calm and focused and possessed of a free will.
“In these interactions, the defendant demonstrated an intelligence and (an) ability to control his own destiny through deliberate and bold falsehoods,” said Vottero.
Are you saying that the more intelligent the suspect is, the more coercive techniques can be allowed by police?, one justice asked.
No, Vottero responded. But he said it was clear that Baye was not browbeaten into a wholesale confession, pointing out that the suspect ultimately refused to admit to setting several of the fires that morning.
Vottero also stated that police never promised Baye he would not be prosecuted if he admitted setting the Fair Street fire but had never intended to hurt – let alone kill – anyone inside the house.
At that moment, another justice pointed out that, during the interrogation, one detective promised to “call the dogs off” and to treat the Fair Street fire “like an accident.”
Vottero said the defense was late in raising the question of whether prosecutors promised immunity; the detectives did not make that promise, he said: “It’s unfair to interpret what took place as a promise that he (Baye) wouldn‘t be charged.”
But asking a suspect whether he intended someone to die in the commission of a felony, Vottero said, is “a relevant line of questioning.”
And, while minimizing the consequences of a suspect’s criminal activity is a problem, Vottero suggested, Judge Sweeney determined that “there was no falsity,” and that police never misrepresented the strength of their case against Baye.
It was also important, Vottero said, that Baye twice waived his Miranda rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present; and even when Baye said he would need a lawyer if he was being charged with the crimes, the two detectives told Baye he was free to leave police headquarters if he wanted to.
At that critical moment in the interrogation Baye chose to stay, and later confessed to setting several fires, including the one on Fair Street. During the court hearing last May, Sweeney asked for the tape to be rewound so she could listen again to the exact language used by Baye and the detectives.
“While the (police) techniques raise some questions and some concerns, on the ultimate issue of voluntariness,” Voterro concluded, “the Commonwealth has met its burden of proof, and has shown that this was a man possessed of free will and rational intellect. And he made the decision what he would admit to and what he would deny.”
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org