By Andrew Amelinckx, Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD -- Kijuame S. Taft looked slightly dazed but had a smile on his face Monday when he walked out of the courtroom a free man.
A Berkshire Superior Court jury found him not guilty of armed robbery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and witness intimidation after deliberating for about 15 hours over three days.
Taft, a 34-year-old with residences in Pittsfield and Waterbury, Conn., was looking at a minimum five-year state prison sentence on the armed robbery charge alone if he had been convicted.
His attorney, David Pixley, said his client was elated by the verdict.
"It was a lot of work, but had a good outcome," he said.
Pixley thanked the jury, saying they were "attentive" and able to "focus on the important issues."
Taft’s co-defendant wasn’t so lucky. Deon "Ace" Allen, 22, also of Waterbury, was found guilty at trial in January on similar charges and is currently serving a five- to seven-year state prison sentence.
At Taft’s trial, 26-year-old Aaron Strampach, of Sheffield, testified that on the night of Sept. 13, 2012, he was trying to buy heroin from Taft in Great Barrington, but instead was forced to smoke crack and was robbed at knifepoint of a little more than $50 and other items from his wallet, along with his cell phone and cigarettes.
"Show him the poker," Strampach recalled Taft telling Allen, who pulled out a knife and waved menacingly at Strampach, according to testimony.
Strampach said he was then forced to leave with the two men from a friend’s Depot Street apartment.
"I was terrified," he said. "I thought they were going to kill me."
Once outside, Strampach refused to get in the car and was stabbed in the arm and abdomen as he attempted to run away from the men, he told the jury. He was treated at the hospital and released the next day.
According to Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Richard M. Locke, a bloody knife was found at the scene, and part of the interactions outside of the apartment were caught by a surveillance camera.
Taft and Allen were arrested in Connecticut about two weeks later.
While it was Allen who wielded the knife, the prosecution sought the charges against Taft under the theory of joint venture, meaning he was as responsible for the crime as Allen.
Locke said Taft was well aware that his friend had a knife and was willing to use it.
He told the jury during final summations that there was a "plethora of information," both direct and circumstantial evidence, that they could use to convict Taft.
Pixley said his client was unaware that Allen had stabbed and robbed Strampach until the next day when Allen told him what he had done.
Taft told investigators from the Great Barrington Police Department that he didn’t sell heroin, but Strampach kept pestering him about purchasing the drug.
Strampach alleged he had bought heroin from Taft on previous occasions.
Taft said he had given Strampach a ride to the apartment in Great Barrington that night and was trying to give him a ride back to his apartment when Strampach became nervous and didn’t want to get in the car. Allen and Strampach then had "words," Taft said.
During cross-examination by Pixley, Strampach admitted that he was "very high" on cocaine at the time and that the drug can cause paranoia.
Taft did not take the stand at trial. He had been free on bail throughout the proceedings.
The five-man and seven-woman jury had trouble reaching a verdict in the case. Over the course of three days they sent out two notes indicating as much.
At about noon Monday, the jury, through a note, said they had gone through all the evidence and made "firm conclusions" but couldn’t reach a unanimous decision on the armed robbery and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charges.
Judge John A. Agostini told them to continue deliberating, the second time he had done so, and gave them a special set of instructions, known as the "Tuey-Rodriguez" charge that is meant to help deadlocked juries and is only given as a last resort. In part, it asks the jurors to carefully consider the correctness of their judgment in light of those of their fellow jurors.
After the jury left the courtroom to continue deliberations, Agostini told the attorneys in the case if the jury came back again without a verdict on the charges he would have to call a mistrial.
By 2 p.m. the jury had reached a verdict -- not guilty on all counts.
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