PITTSFIELD -- Jury selection begins Tuesday for the first of 16 defendants facing Superior Court trials in connection with a Great Barrington drug-dealing sting that has galvanized grass-roots opposition to District Attorney David A. Capeless' prosecution tactics.
Kyle Sawin, 18, of Otis is facing three charges of selling marijuana to an undercover police officer, plus three more serious charges of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone.
About seven grams of marijuana allegedly changed hands between Sawin and an undercover police officer on three occasions in the Taconic parking lot area off Main Street.
Defendants championed Sawin is among seven defendants whose cause has been taken up by Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice. The organization of local parents, business leaders and others has protested Capeless' strict application of the school-zone drug laws on suspects who are accused of selling small quantities of drugs and who have no prior criminal records.
The school-zone charge, which was lodged against nearly all of the young people nabbed in the September sting, carries a minimum mandatory jail term of two years Attorney Judith C. Knight, representing Sawin, declined to comment on the upcoming case, but said it will last about two to four days. However, Sawin's case will be closely watched by the legal community, lawyers said yesterday. They are defending clients who allegedly did business with a single undercover police officer, Felix Aguirre, a member of the Pittsfield Police Department.
Aguirre is said by lawyers to have befriended young people over a period of months, eventually approaching them in the Taconic parking lot off Railroad Street, which had become a hot spot for complaints by local merchants and town officials concerned about drug activity.
"I, for one, plan on attending as much of that trial as possible," said attorney Lori Levinson of Pittsfield, who represents one person accused of making a single three-gram sale within a school zone.
"I would like to see what Felix Aguirre has to say for himself on the witness stand, since it will help my client to see how he testifies," said Levinson. "It will be very illuminating."
The Taconic lot, where the investigation unfolded over several months ending in September, is within 1,000 feet of the Great Barrington Co-operative Preschool and the Searles/Bryant School complex.
During the summer months, when much of the undercover operation was taking place, those schools were closed, and in no case were children being targeted as buyers for drugs, according to lawyers and the citizens' group. Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice contends that Capeless has unfairly pursued the school-zone charges against those with minor charges, but the group has limited its advocacy to the defendants with no prior records. The group has lobbied Capeless to consider each case on an individual basis, rather than apply the law uniformly to both more serious offenders and less egregious violators.
No backing down
But Capeless has refused to back down, saying that all drug offenses -- including minor marijuana sales -- contribute to community drug troubles, and that his policy is to apply the school-zone charge whenever possible. He has had support among others in the community, who support his hard-line approach to cleaning up a problem area.
Lawyers defending the cases have filed a variety of pretrial motions seeking to dismiss charges or derail aspects of the criminal case, but with no success. This week, a judge refused one lawyer's motion that sought access to the personnel records of Aguirre, whom one defendant claimed was smoking marijuana with suspects and buying beer for them as a means of cementing a relationship. "Of course, I will be watching with interest," said one mother whose son's trial is upcoming. "I'm really just thinking about my son."
Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA)
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