, Salem, MA

December 13, 2007

Judge finds collusion when witnesses 'can't recall' what happened

By Julie Manganis , Staff writer

SWAMPSCOTT - A former Swampscott man on trial in a 2006 stabbing colluded with at least three witnesses, including his own father, to prevent them from testifying, a Salem Superior Court judge found yesterday.

Blake Colella, 25, has been cleared in three separate sexual assault cases since 2002. Now he is standing trial on charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in the stabbing, which took place outside a 7-Eleven on Essex Street in Lynn in May 2006.

Prosecutors allege that Colella stabbed Richard Dalton in the chest after he intervened in a conversation between Colella and Dalton's teenage cousin, Starann Butler. Colella also allegedly assaulted Dalton's younger brother Joseph.

But when Richard Dalton took the stand last week, he testified that he could not recall the events of that night. Neither could Joseph Dalton. And on Tuesday, when Butler was called to testify, she also said she could not recall much about that night and insisted she had identified a photo of Colella only because police had shown it to her.

Angelo Colella, the suspect's father, refused entirely to testify - and is now facing possible contempt charges.

Judge David Lowy invoked a rarely used legal doctrine of "forfeiture by wrongdoing" that will allow the prosecution, and eventually jurors, to rely on what would normally be considered hearsay evidence - statements the witnesses made to police and to a grand jury. Colella and his lawyer, Ronald Ranta, can't challenge the use of that evidence.

The evidence against Colella includes a series of recorded conversations between the suspect and his father, made while he was being held on bail awaiting trial. Prosecutor Michael Hickey played those recordings to the jury yesterday.

In those calls, Colella and his father discuss the witnesses in the case. Angelo Colella tells his son that he knows the Dalton family and has talked to their father, who told him, "My kid's not a rat."

At one point, Colella tells his father that Butler, who told police she did not know him, has to contact police and say she was mistaken.

In another call, Angelo Colella warns his son "keep your piehole shut in there," and goes on to lecture him. "I'm trying to put this thing to bed, and you're in there undermining me," Angelo Colella told his son.

Lowy said the recordings were "replete" with examples of coercion and went on to call the witnesses "less than credible" in their testimony on the stand during the trial.

Prosecutors have found no evidence of coercion or witness intimidation in the sexual assault cases involving Colella, which date back to 2002.

This may be only the second time the doctrine of forfeiture by wrongdoing, which has slowly gained acceptance around the country, has been used in Essex County. But it has been invoked in cases in Boston and other big cities, where witness intimidation is a widespread problem and witnesses frequently become unavailable or testify that they cannot recall events once on the witness stand.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations in the case sometime today. Colella could face up to 10 years in prison on the most serious charge.