Attorneys for 2 men convicted of murder of VIPD officer move for dismissal
Published: March 5, 2014
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ST. CROIX - Post-conviction motions have been filed for the two people convicted for killing Police Cpl. Wendell Williams in June 2001.
Jose Ventura and Jose Rivera Jr. were both convicted on Feb. 6 of a single charge of first-degree murder following a day and a half of deliberations by a V.I. Superior Court jury.
Their attorneys have now filed motions asking the court for dismissals in the case, while Assistant Attorney General Joseph Ponteen has stepped in for the sole prosecutor in the case, Kip Roberson, who took leave from his duties shortly after the trial concluded.
Originally, five defendants were put on trial last month. Ventura and Rivera had been had been charged along with Maximiliano Velasquez III, Sharima Clercent and Juan Velasquez in connection to the torture and brutal murder of the veteran police officer on June 14, 2001.
Once the prosecution had presented all of its evidence, Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. granted a motion from defense and entered judgements of acquittal in the case for Clercent and Juan Velasquez.
Maximiliano Velasquez III, Rivera and Ventura continued on in the trial and presented evidence in hopes of clearing their names or at least creating doubt in the minds of the jurors.
Jurors ultimately acquitted Maximiliano Velasquez III of the murder charge, leaving only Ventura and Rivera facing the possibility of spending the rest of their natural lives in prison.
Ventura and Rivera worked in concert to kidnap Williams some time after he got off work on June 14, 2001, and took him to an abandoned building at the former South Grapetree Bay Resort on St. Croix's East End, where he was tortured and fatally shot before his body was dismembered and thrown out to sea and never found.
In February 2012, police arrested the defendants.
Jury selection began Jan. 21 and during the trial, key witness Theresa Coogle testified that she saw Rivera, Ventura and other unknown individuals torture and murder Williams. She said she was ordered along with Clercent to clean up the blood after the disposal of Williams' body.
In a motion for acquittal filed on behalf of Jose Rivera, attorney Gordon Rhea outlined his arguments in 16 pages stating the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction.
"The only substantive evidence presented by the people was the inherently incredible testimony of Theresa Coogle, an alleged witness to the event that purportedly gave rise to this action," he said.
He said Coogle's testimony was inconsistent and the prosecution could not even contest testimony that Coogle was living in Miami at the time of the alleged actions and could not have witnessed anything on St. Croix.
In addition, he said testimony from Dr. Lloyd Henry supported medical records that show that Rivera had only been released from the hospital three days before the alleged offense and was incapable of having engaged in strenuous activity.
Rhea questioned Coogle testimony, noting the seven different statements that she gave between may 2002 and April 2005 to the FBI and Virgin Islands Police Department about the events and then about an additional statement she gave in 2011.
"Her story changed dramatically each time she gave it, varying in major material aspects, such as how she got to the crime scene, who else was there, who did what and how the body was disposed of," the motion reads.
Rhea concluded by stating that viewing the record in its entirety, no reasonable fact-finder could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Rivera did the things that Coogle claims to have seen him do, according to the motion.
In his 23-page motion, attorney Daniel Cevallos raised similar arguments and submitted a renewed motion on behalf of Ventura for a judgement of acquittal or for a conditional new trial. Or alternatively, he asked for an extension to submit briefs as he had not received transcripts from the case.
Cevallos also raised questions about Coogle's credibility, saying that she had testified saying his client had shot Williams in his hand, then later testified that it was Rivera that shot him in his hand. He also questioned her conflicting testimony on how she got to the scene, who was there, what happened before and during the alleged murder and what happened later.
He said the court should further acquit because the prosecution failed to prove Williams was dead, that his death was a result of criminal activity and that his client killed or aided and abetted anyone else in the killing.
He said the jury's verdicts were against the weight of the evidence and the court should grant a new trial.
Ponteen, in his responses, said it is no secret that Coogle's testimony contained inconsistencies, but that the statements were inconsistent about collateral matters and not about Williams' death. He said Coogle had explained that some of her inconsistencies were because law enforcement officers confused her statements with another homicide she witnessed and because she was traumatized.
Ponteen said the prosecution proved that Williams was dead with testimony from his sister and a close friend, who both said Williams had not been seen or heard from since June 14, 2001.
He said Coogle's testimony was corroborated by Jimmy and Hector Davis' out-of-court statements to FBI agents, but the two men changed their stories in court.
Ponteen wrote that while Henry testified that Rivera had surgery, he testified that he was moving around the very next day, and not weeks later like Rivera's family had testified.
He said there was sufficient evidence presented by the prosecution to sustain the jury verdict beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendants' motions are based almost entirely on witness credibility with the defense asking the court to weigh Coogle's credibility.
"The proper place to challenge the credibility would have been in cross-examination and subsequent argument to the jury, not in a motion for judgement of acquittal," he wrote. "The court can not overturn a jury verdict simply because of witness credibility issues."
Ponteen said Coogle's testimony was not inherently incredible or improbable.
Ponteen concluded that even if the court believes that the jury verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence, it can order new trial only if it believes that there is a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice had occurred - that is, that an innocent person was convicted, which he said is not the case.
Donohue is expected to make a ruling on the motions within the next few weeks and has tentatively scheduled sentencing in the cases for 10 a.m. April 4.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.