Judge dismisses case against 2 defendants
Published: February 4, 2014
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ST. CROIX - Two of five people charged in the 2001 kidnapping and murder of V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell Williams were released of all conditions of restraint against them after V.I. Superior Court Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue granted defense motions on their behalf to dismiss the case against them on the basis that the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence against them.
Sharima Clercent and Juan Velasquez were both advised just after 1 p.m. that the cases against them had been dismissed.
Clercent and Velasquez along with Maximiliano Velasquez III; Jose Ventura and Jose Rivera Jr.; were facing charges of aiding and abetting each other in committing first-degree murder and felony murder and could spend the rest of their natural lives in prison if convicted.
The prosecution contends the defendants 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 the island's East End, where he was tortured and fatally shot before his body was dismembered and thrown out to sea and was never found.
In February of 2012, police arrested all of the defendants and with the exception of Clercent, all remained jailed, unable to satisfy bail conditions.
When Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson advised the court that he had called all of his witnesses and presented all of his witnesses in the case before lunch Monday, Donohue called a recess and moved forward with hearing oral motions by each defense attorney.
After the in-chambers hearing, he granted the dismissals for the two, leaving the remaining three defendants to remain on trial.
When the news of the dismissal got to the families and supporters, Clercent was in shock and was thankful, but could say nothing more than that she was happy.
Her attorney, Jomo Meade, said his client is a prime of example of how innocent people are arrested, put in jail and dragged through the mud.
Clercent's church sisters danced down the sidewalk from the courthouse to the parking lot singing and waving their hands in joy. Maudrina Benjamin said outside the courthouse that the entire church family is overjoyed with the ruling.
"I never had a doubt in my mind that she was innocent," she said. "Our God is a God of justice, and if you are guilty you have to pay the price, but innocent people shall be let go."
Clercent left the courthouse then returned after lunch and watched the trial from the back of the courtroom.
Juan Velasquez, was released within hours of the ruling and also returned to court to watch the trial of two of his brothers - Ventura and Maximiliano Velasquez - with the charges still hanging over their heads.
He shared hugs with family and friends who had been supportive throughout the trial and said he was glad to be free.
"Freedom is a must, for everyone 'cause God don't sleep," he said.
A fisherman by trade, Juan Velasquez said he was anxious to get back in the water and catch some big fish and lobsters and was ready to eat some good food at his sister's house.
During the arguments, Vincent Colianni Jr. on behalf of Juan Velasquez, told the court that there was no evidence or mention of his client's name during the trial to even be present at the scene of the crime. He said there was no testimony of actions by Juan Velasquez that could be presented to the jury.
Roberson argued that he admits that the case against Juan Velasquez is weak, but that the acts are so gruesome that he should be held accountable.
"You don't get there and see those acts and sit there by accident," Roberson said.
In handing down his ruling, Donohue said the record is clear on lacking any mention of Juan Velasquez having a role in the events, and as such, he must grant the motion to dismiss the charges against him.
Meade said the prosecution had not even presented the slightest evidence against his client and a judgement of acquittal should be granted. He said the prosecution's key witness Theresa Coogle testified she was asked who was at the scene when she arrived and the woman listed out names, but did not mention Clercent.
Coogle testified later that once Williams was killed and the body was removed, Maximiliano ordered her along with Clercent to clean up the blood.
"And I would submit judge, that even if the court accepts that she was present at the time of the murder, mere presence does not make a person guilty," Meade said.
Roberson said the women were present during the violent acts and played their role to clean up and destroy evidence. They were all in a remote location in the middle of the night and knew exactly what was going to happen and the charges should stand, he said.
In granting the motion for Clercent, Donohue said there was no evidence other than from Coogle, and from all accounts Coogle and Clercent were both sick to their stomachs and had the same role, merely to clean up the blood as ordered to.
When the attention moved to Jose Rivera's attorney Gordon Rhea for his oral motions, he told the court that the testimony of convict brothers Jimmy Davis and Hector Davis that were presented by the people did not implicate his client and that the only evidence that did, was the testimony from Coogle, which was contrary to the testimony from the federal agents.
"She is the only witness, and her story changed each time," he said. "The jury would have to decide which one of three or more versions they are to use."
It is Roberson's position that the prosecution met its burden in presenting substantial evidence. He said the main corroborating evidence was from Hector and Jimmy Davis, but they changed their testimony in court. Despite that fact, there still is evidence of Rivera shooting Williams in his hand and then cutting up the body and carrying it out to the beach, Roberson argued.
Donohue said because the standard is to look at the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, he has to look at the testimony of the key witness and not judge her credibility. While she said things that were conflicting and inconsistent at best, evidence is sufficient to continue with the case as to Jose Rivera, Donohue said.
He ruled against the motion to dismiss the charges against Ventura as well on the same basis, saying that Coogle testified that she saw the shooting and saw the disposal and identified Ventura as a willing and active player.
Ventura's attorney, Daniel Cevallos, had argued that the government did not as much as prove that Williams was dead and that his death was caused by criminal actions.
"The only evidence is uncorroborated evidence," he said. There is no science, no body and nothing else."
Donohue lastly heard from H. Hanibal O'Bryan on behalf of Maximiliano Velasquez. O'Bryan said Coogle's general statement was that Velasquez brought her to the site and that his only role was to order them to clean up the blood following the murder.
"When they specifically asked her what role he played, she said she knew he was involved, but she did not know how," he said. "There is no statement before the court of egging on or anything else, there was silence until after, based on the testimony."
O'Bryan said to prove intent requires that the person facilitates the success of the crime and not merely have knowledge of it. He said the argument would have been different if the defendants were charged with accessory after the fact.
He also argued that on the felony murder charge which links the kidnapping to the murder, there is not evidence of any type that mentions his client's involvement.
Donohue agreed and dismissed the felony murder charge as to each of the defendants, but denied the dismissal motion on the first-degree murder charge. He said based on in-court testimony, Maximiliano Velasquez took Coogle to the location where she saw the murder and disposal of the body and told her to get a hold of herself, when she got sick. He said he then ordered the women to clean up the blood so a jury could make inference that he took action to make the killing succeed.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.