Defense attorneys attack key witness, lack of evidence in closing arguments


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ST. CROIX - Following six full days of testimony in the V.I. Superior Court trial of three persons charged in the 2001 murder of veteran V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams, attorneys presented closing arguments on Tuesday.

Following the acquittal of two of the five defendants on Monday, Maximiliano Velasquez III; Jose Ventura and Jose Rivera Jr. remain on trial, facing charges of aiding and abetting each other in committing first-degree murder and could spend the rest of their natural lives in prison if convicted.

Sharima Clercent and Juan Velasquez also charged with the crime, but Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. granted their Rule 29 motions, which had argued that insufficient evidence had been presented to uphold the charges against them.

Prosecution closing

On Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson, who has been the lone prosecutor on the case, began his closings with a picture of Williams on the overhead projector.

When Williams first went missing in June 2001, rumors and speculation abounded, but there was no word of what may have happened to him until the prosecution's key witness, Theresa Coogle, came forward with valuable information, Roberson said.

In May 2002, Coogle told police that she went to the remote location at South Grapetree Beach and saw Williams restrained, tortured and then murdered before his body was dismembered and taken to be dumped out to sea, he said.

Coogle's story would have been corroborated by the statements the convicted felons Jimmy Davis and Hector Davis - who are brothers - made to federal agents, but when the brothers came to court, they both changed their stories and lied, Roberson said.

"Theresa Coogle identified all of the defendants, and she came back to St. Croix in 2012 and was able to identify the location that was just like she had described in her statement," he said. "She had inconsistencies in her statements, but her core story, the nugget of it, all holds true."

Roberson tore apart testimony from Rivera's sisters who said that he had been shot in December and had complications in June of 2001. He said the facts about the shooting and surgeries Rivera had to undergo remain true, but Rivera's sisters' story about how frail and in pain he had been clearly was exaggerated and rehearsed.

Roberson asked the jurors to separate the mountain from the mole hill and search for the truth by looking at motives for the witnesses to lie to protect the defendants.

Rivera's defense

Rivera's attorney, Gordon Rhea, said the jurors should ask whether the defendants really committed the crimes or if it was just a crazy story made up by someone who was angry and wanted revenge.

He said enough testimony had been presented to raise reasonable doubt in the case.

He said if they are suspected to be guilty, likely guilty, probably guilty or even highly likely to be guilty and there is doubt, that is enough to find them not guilty.

Rhea said Coogle lied and had problems keeping track of her lies and her statements when it came to the details of the crimes.

"You heard her from the witness stand. She could not even decide on who shot Wendell Williams in the hand or who shot in him the mouth," he said. "The devil is in the details, and she couldn't keep the details straight."

Rhea said there was not a single thread of evidence to back up what Coogle said, especially after the Davis brothers testified that they knew nothing about the allegations and charges.

Rhea said there are many reasons why his client did not and could not commit the crimes and reminded jurors of Dr. Lloyd Henry's testimony that Rivera had undergone surgery on June 6, was hospitalized until June 11 and had his staples for the abdominal wound removed on June 15.

Williams went missing June 14, 2001.

Ventura's defense

Daniel Cevallos, counsel for Ventura asked the question in his arguments, "Why are we here if the prosecution and the police knew that there were so many inconsistencies from the key witness and that she had been in Florida all this time?"

Cevallos reminded the jurors that when he made his opening statement last week he told them that they would hear many responses from the witness saying that she didn't recall, did not remember or that there was a misunderstanding with her statement. That was exactly what was heard on numerous occasions, he said.

Cevallos said the case did not include any DNA evidence, no fingerprint analysis, no gunshot testing or anything else scientific, and relied on nothing but the inconsistent statements of one witness.

"The FBI, local police and all the law enforcement officers knew that she was unreliable and wildly inconsistent," he said. "So why balance the whole case on her?"

Cevallos said it was all a cover-up, and he reminded jurors of testimony from Williams' sister that she thought the V.I. Police Department was involved in Williams' disappearance and that a V.I. Police officer had been marking Williams present for duty for five days after he was last seen to conceal his disappearance.

"People talk about cover-up and pinning the case on others, but that is what this is. The FBI came because of speculation of corruption," Cevallos said.

He said even FBI agents talked about the possible corruption and motives by other police to harm Williams. Seven officers were scheduled to give statements to the FBI agents and never showed up for their interviews, which in itself is suspicious, Cevallos said.

"Theresa Coogle was perfect because she gave them names that did not have badges," he said. "She had an ax to grind, tried to make a deal and they never planned to follow through."

Velasquez's defense

H. Hannibal O'Bryan also made arguments about Coogle's motivation relative to his client, Velasquez.

He said Coogle lied about going to dinner with Velasquez and about going out to the building to meet him, because she was angry.

"She lied and told a good story, just like I told you she would, but her statements changed even when she talked about what Maximiliano Velasquez was doing on that night," O'Bryan said.

O'Bryan said the case agent, V.I. Police Detective Frankie Ortiz, saw none of the inconsistencies because he either was not looking or because someone was hiding evidence from him.

There was no testimony to back up what Coogle had said and even the statements from Jimmy Davis and Hector Davis were not concrete, O'Bryan said.

Prosecution rebuttal

To rebut statements from the attorneys, Roberson said there was a lot of talk about conspiracies to cover up things, but even looking at the person marking Williams present, the logical conclusion is that he was trying to cover for Williams.

He said there is no conspiracy, and everything was investigated and followed up.

Roberson said the most believable statements were the initial ones from the Davis brothers, because the defendants knew they were criminals like themselves and trusted them with the information about their criminal deeds. But when the Davis brothers were brought to face the defendants, their stories changed, Roberson said.

Jurors will be given their final instructions when they return to court today and could begin their deliberations before lunchtime.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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