Denied: Massachusetts Jury Slaps Down Overreaching District Attorney in "School Zone" Bust 9/30/05

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A Massachusetts jury Tuesday refused to send Kyle Sawin, 18, to prison for a minimum of two years after he was caught selling small amounts of marijuana in a drug sting designed to allow prosecutors to use enhanced "school zone" penalties. The verdict, which came after nine hours of deliberation, was a slap in the face to Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless, who ignored a chorus of community complaints in seeking such stiff penalties for small-time pot law violations.

Sawin and six other Taconic High students were arrested after complying with repeated requests from an undercover police officer to sell them marijuana at a parking lot. The parking lot was within a thousand feet of a church with a pre-school program, which enabled Capeless to charge the local youngsters under the school zone enhancement. That enhancement carries a mandatory minimum two-year prison sentence. Sawin was, and the six remaining defendants are all first-time, nonviolent defendants.

This was the second slap-down for Capeless in his effort to send the young man to prison. An earlier trial resulted in a hung jury.

"I am so grateful that this young man and his family can finally return to their normal lives, and Kyle's plans for the future," said Judy Knight, Sawin's attorney, in a statement after the verdict. "Charges brought against an individual should fit the facts of the case and the goal of the criminal justice system is not to just blindly apply or stack sentences regardless of individual case circumstance. Nobody would have won if Kyle was found guilty of the school zone charges and sent to jail for two years."

The sting perpetrated against the Taconic High School students and Capeless' repeated statements that he would seek to bring enhanced school zone charges against all possible defendants resulted in a firestorm of criticism of the drug-fighting DA. It also sparked the formation of Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice, a local group that includes former prosecutor Ira Kaplan.

"A prosecutor's job is to seek justice, not to exact the maximum potential penalty," Kaplan told DRCNet in a June interview. "You are paid by the state and the taxpayers to do the right thing, and sending a 17-year-old to jail for two years for selling a couple of joints does not seem like the right thing."

It seems the jurors of Berkshire county agreed. No word yet on whether Capeless, in the face of citizen protests and juror rebellion, will continue to attempt to exact mandatory minimum prison sentences on small-time teenage defendants. But now he is on notice.

"Had the District Attorney prevailed he would have unnecessarily ruined a young man's life, splintered a family and achieved no benefit for Berkshire County in terms of addressing drug abuse," said Concerned Citizens spokesman Peter Greer. "DA Capeless should cease this outdated, ineffective wasteful policy and join the vast majority of his constituents and national trends to use his discretion and seek appropriate, rational and effective alternatives to prison. The jury has spoken, and we hope he heard them loud and clear."

If not, there's always the ballot box. Earlier this year, Concerned Citizens warned that if Capeless didn't change his ways, he could face an electoral challenge.

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Issue #405 -- 9/30/05

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