Evidence Against Accused Arsonist Anthony Baye Thrown Out by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
The Commonwealth failed to prove that state police interrogation techniques were not overly coercive, wrote the judge who penned the decision.
NORTHAMPTON — The state’s Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that accused arsonist-murderer Anthony P. Baye’s taped “confession” to state police regarding his role in the downtown arson fires of Dec. 27, 2009 “should have been suppressed as involuntary” by Hampshire Superior Court judge Constance Sweeney.
The effect of the high court’s ruling, issued Monday, is that jurors in Baye’s upcoming trial will never view the 10-hour interrogation conducted by state troopers on Jan. 4, 2010, just before Baye was arrested and charged. During the video- and audio-taped interview — conducted at Northampton police headquarters, at the Bluebonnet Diner, and in a police car visiting several of the fire scenes — Baye made a number of incriminating statements.
“The statements [made by Baye during the interrogation] cannot be used for any purpose,” David P. Hoose, Baye’s lead defense attorney, told Northampton Media.
The 14-page SJC ruling, penned by Associate Justice Barbara A. Lenk, reverses an earlier decision by Sweeney last August to allow the taped interview into evidence. The entire 10-hour video- and audio-tape of Baye’s interrogation was viewed by Sweeney in an open courtroom last year during an evidentiary hearing.
Baye is accused of setting 15 house and car fires, most of them in and around Ward 3, during a 75-minute window early on the morning of Dec. 27, 2009. Baye was later indicted on 45 felony charges, including the murder of a father and son who died as their 17 Fair St. home burned to the ground.
At the time of his arrest, Baye, now 27, worked in the kitchen of a downtown Northampton restaurant, across the railroad tracks from his parents’ home on Hawley Street, where he lived in a top floor apartment.
In oral arguments made before the SJC last Nov. 9, Hoose argued that Baye’s statements were obtained in violation of his constitutional rights to counsel assured under Miranda v. Arizona (1966). Hoose also maintained that certain tactics used by Baye’s interrogators were so misleading and coercive as to render the defendant’s confessions involuntary.
Brett Vottero, special prosecutor for the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, argued that Baye — “intelligent, calm, articulate, coherent and rational” — spoke to the officers freely, and that the police interrogation techniques, while objectionable at times, did not overborne Baye’s will.
Under Miranda, a suspect must be told before being questioned that he has the right to remain silent, that any statement he makes may be used against him, and that he has the right to have a lawyer present.
The high court addressed the issue of the Miranda protections, but ultimately based its ruling upon case law regarding what constitutes the “voluntariness” of a confession.
“Given certain shortcomings in the record, and because we conclude that the defendant’s statements must in any event be suppressed as involuntary, we address but do not resolve the question whether those statements were obtained in violation of the defendant’s right to counsel,” wrote Lenk.
Police Custody at Issue
Lenk said the issue of whether Baye was technically in custody when he made a request for counsel “is an extremely close question,” noting that even though Baye was initially told by police he was free to leave, “a previously noncustodial setting can become custodial . . . as this one at some point assuredly did.”
If a person is in custody, the police must give a Miranda warning if they want to use a suspect’s statements as evidence at trial. If a person is not in custody, no Miranda warning is required and anything he says can be used at trial if criminal charges are later filed.
Baye met with police three times in the days following the fires, each time at the Northampton police station. The contested statements were made during the final, day-long interrogation by state troopers Michael Mazza and Paul Zipper on Jan. 4, 2010, which terminated with Baye’s arrest.
Rejecting the arguments made by Vottero, Judge Lenk wrote that Baye’s request to speak with a lawyer during questioning could hardly be considered “ambiguous or equivocal,” and noted that the police continued to question Baye after that point.
The defendant had already been interrogated at the police station twice without being detained; had these interviews been “similarly accusatory,” Baye might not have inferred he was under arrest just because he was being questioned again, Lenk argued.
As for whether Baye knew he was a prime suspect in the fires before meeting with Zipper and Mazza on Jan. 4, Lenk wrote that Sweeney had little basis to make that determination, since she hadn’t watched videotapes of his prior questioning.
Nonetheless, Lenk wrote, conducting further fact-finding on the custody issue isn’t necessary because the court decided Baye’s confession was “inadmissible for other reasons.”
Lenk: Commonwealth Didn’t Meet Burden of Proof
Prosecutors failed to prove that Baye’s statements were voluntarily given, and that “the will of the defendant was [not] overborne,” wrote Lenk.
She cited Commonwealth v. Novo (2004), which says where police obtain a confession by misrepresenting the defendant’s constitutional rights, it will be “extremely difficult for the Commonwealth” to demonstrate voluntariness. And calling upon Commonwealth v. Tremblay (2011), Lenk said statements may be deemed involuntary if obtained as a result of assurances that they would not be used in prosecution.
Lenk listed “multiple problematic tactics” deployed by Zipper and Mazza, who she said:
• exaggerated the strength of the evidence against Baye, while simultaneously minimizing the gravity of his alleged crimes;
• suggested that if Baye did not confess then and there, the charges against him would be more serious;
• mischaracterized the law of murder, felony-murder, and accident, telling Baye he would not be guilty of murder if he meant the fire as a prank;
• tried to dissuade Baye when he asked for a lawyer by telling him his statements wouldn’t be used to charge or accuse him, but to gain leniency from prosecutors by demonstrating the defendant intended to cooperate in good faith.
Accordingly, she concluded, the statements should be suppressed because the Commonwealth failed to show that these “multiple improprieties did not overwhelm the defendant’s ability rationally to consider whether to make the challenged incriminatory statements.”
Defense happy; Prosecution sanguine
Reached by telephone Monday, Attorney Hoose said that “obviously, we’re happy with the ruling. The SJC got it right,” and confirmed that the ruling was based upon the voluntariness standard.
Asked for the larger implications of the ruling, Hoose said the “police interrogation techniques went well beyond what the courts and case law in Massachusetts and federal courts have tolerated.”
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, in a press release Monday, said although his office is disappointed with the ruling , they respect the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court.
“We had hoped that a jury would be permitted to see and hear this evidence and to reach its own decision on the voluntariness of the defendant’s statement, as well as its reliability,” he wrote.
Sullivan said there is sufficient evidence apart from the suppressed confessions to continue with the prosecution, and that his staffers “look forward to presenting that evidence to a jury.”
The DA’s office “remains confident that the truth of these charges will be established and that justice will be obtained,” he concluded.
Whether the ruling changes state police policy and practice when it comes to interrogating suspects remains to be seen.
— Mary Serreze
© Northampton Media 2012