SALEM – About 200 people gathered outside the Ruane Judicial Center on Thursday afternoon to protest a judge's decision to release an admitted heroin dealer.

Chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, Judge Feeley must go," protesters cheered as speakers excoriated Salem Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley for that and other rulings they say have been too soft on criminals.

"Letting drug dealers go free with just a slap on the hand, that's not the kind of country I want to be a member of," said Lori Masi of Beverly, who wore a sandwich board sign in support of a proposed bill asking Gov. Charlie Baker to remove Feeley from the bench.

The rally was organized in response to Feeley's decision last week to give Manuel Soto-Vittini probation rather than jail time after he pleaded guilty to charges of drug possession with intent to distribute. Soto-Vittini had more than 40 bags of heroin in his car when he was arrested in Salem and was described by prosecutors as a near-daily drug dealer.

Feeley said Soto-Vittini was trying to support his family and called his offense "basically a money crime," while rejecting a prosecutor's request for one to three years in state prison. Feeley also said he took into account the possible immigration consequences for Soto-Vittini as a result of the conviction.

The rally, which lasted for an hour and a half, was led by WRKO talk show host Jeff Kuhner. Speakers included Republican State Rep. Geoffrey Diehl, who is running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Elizabeth Warren; Republican State Rep. Jim Lyons of Andover; Governor's Council candidate Rich Baker; and Attorney General candidate Jay McMahon.

Kuhner also introduced Lucy Kohler, whose son died of opiate addiction and who has been protesting Feeley's decision every day at the courthouse, according to Kuhner.

"(Feeley) should be fired," Kohler told the crowd.

Kuhner said Feeley "has blood on his hands" for some of his decisions. He also blasted Baker and Democrats in the state legislature for not pushing to remove Feeley, and the "mainstream media" for not covering the story.

"This is the opening shot of a populist revolution," Kuhner said. "We're going to take our streets back. We're going to take our neighborhoods back. We going to take our courts back. We're going to take our country back."

The crowd, standing in the courtyard of the Federal Street court, cheered on the speakers with several chants, including "Lock him up," "Build that wall," and "Where is Charlie?," referring to Baker. At one point, a man with a bullhorn urged Feeley to come out of the courthouse. Signs included "Protect Children, Impeach Judge Feeley," and "We Are the Court of Public Opinion."

Police looked on as the rally remained peaceful.

A handful of people stood on the sidewalk outside the courthouse in support of Feeley, with signs saying, "Protect Judicial Independence." Stephen Wright, a lawyer from Lawrence, held a sign that read, "There is only one perfect Judge. The rest are human."

"I don't agree with the mob attitude about a judge's decision," Wright said. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.