From a pool of about 50, 12 jurors were seated in Berkshire Superior Court to hear the case of 18-year-old Kyle Sawin of Otis, who is facing three charges of marijuana distribution and three charges of selling drugs within a school zone.
Jury selection will continue today with the selection of two more jurors to hear the case; typically 12 jurors and two alternates are seated for jury trials.
Eighteen people were indicted after the drug sweep in Great Barrington last year. Sawin is one of seven defendants whose cause has been championed by a grass-roots group known as Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice. The group says mandatory sentencing for a school-zone violation is particularly harsh for teenagers with no prior records who are accused of selling small amounts of marijuana.
Though testimony did not get under way yesterday, defense attorney Judith Knight, during pretrial motions before Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini, indicated she will show that Sawin was a victim of entrapment, a vulnerable teen with a drug problem.
She indicated Sawin would not have sold drugs were it not for the persistent overtures of undercover officer Felix Aguirre, who Knight said smoked marijuana with some of the young people he was doing business with to curry favor.
Knight's strategy means that she has the burden of proof in showing that Sawin was entrapped by police and that he was not predisposed to selling drugs; the prosecution can respond by attempting to show that Sawin was, in fact, prone to drug dealing.
Her entrapment defense will include testimony from several witnesses who will first undergo "voir dire" questioning, without the jury present, before they testify for jurors.
A key witness, Knight indicated, is a substance abuse and addiction counselor who was working with Sawin before, during and after the drug investigation carried out by the Berkshire County Drug Task Force. Knight told Agostini that counselor Maro Hall of the Brien Center would testify to Sawin's vulnerability and susceptibility to the overtures of Aguirre.
But whether Hall will make it to the witness stand was in question yesterday during pretrial discussions. The lawyers were in dispute over whether Knight had given proper notification to the district attorney's office regarding Hall's testimony and whether she was being called specifically as an expert witness.
Knight said she had given proper notification, but Assistant District Attorney Richard M. Locke disagreed, and the matter was left undecided when the arguments concluded yesterday. Agostini will make a decision on the matter today, when opening arguments and initial testimony will begin.
During a morning of legal debate, Darryl and Laurie Sawin, Kyle's parents, sat holding hands. During a break, Laurie Sawin went to her son, a slightly built blond, and gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
Locke had made a motion before the judge that all the witnesses be kept out of the courtroom during the trial, including Laurie Sawin, but Knight protested, and Agostini allowed her to remain.
Knight also argued for a change of venue in the case because of pretrial publicity, and Agostini held off until determining whether impartial jurors could be found.
It was a close call. Of the 50 or so initial jurors to file into the courtroom, almost half raised their hands when asked if they were familiar with the Great Barrington drug cases.
For that reason and other personal matters, nearly 30 jurors were dismissed after speaking privately to the lawyers and the judge. The lawyers challenged nine or 10 others who were eventually seated, with a total of 12 were seated by lunchtime.
The Great Barrington drug sweep, which focused on the Taconic parking lot off Railroad Street, generated much controversy in South County and sparked the formation of the Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice.
The group generated a petition with some 2,000 signatures against Berkshire County District Attorney David F. Capeless' decision to seek school-zone violation charges against all defendants in the drug investigation.
The school-zone charge carries a minimum mandatory jail term of two years.
The citizens' group contends that Capeless has failed to use his power of discretion against defendants with no prior record who sold small quantities of marijuana.
They also have presented research showing that marijuana-only cases rarely, if ever, are prosecuted in Superior Court, even if a school-zone charge is pending as well. Such cases are typically handled at the District Court level, but in this case 18 people were indicted by a grand jury.
Some have more serious drug-dealing charges pending against them, involving cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer.
The Taconic parking lot area is within 1,000 feet of the Great Barrington Co-operative Preschool and the Searles/Bryant School complex. For most of last summer, during the peak of the investigation, both of the schools were closed.
On the witness list read to jurors yesterday were the names of several other young people charged in last year's drug raid: Justin Cronin, John Rybacki and Alexandra Brenner.
Brenner was charged with a single count of marijuana distribution, but no school-zone charge was lodged against her. Her case was handled in Southern Berkshire District Court, and in March was continued without a finding.
Cronin and Rybacki, who will be called by the prosecution, each have cases pending in Superior Court.
Locke told Agostini yesterday that neither witness had been made any promises in exchange for their testimony against Sawin.
Among the witnesses to be called are officers from the drug task force, the Great Barrington Police Department, a Great Barrington selectman and a number of other young people.