Jury finds St. Croix man not guilty of murder

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ST. CROIX - A V.I. Superior Court jury deliberated for about two more hours Thursday morning before returning not-guilty verdicts on all of the charges against Elijah Ritter, who was charged in the 2013 murder of Sheldon Phillips north of Frederiksted town.

After just two days of testimony in the case that began with jury selection Monday, jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon about 3 p.m., and about 5 p.m., they asked to return to their deliberations on Thursday.

Jurors returned to the courtroom to continue their deliberations at 9 a.m., and about 11:30, they tendered a signed note to the courtroom marshal, indicating that they had reached a verdict.

Jurors found Ritter not guilty of first-degree murder and the lesser included charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, as well as the remaining charges of first-degree assault; third-degree assault; unauthorized possession of a firearm; carrying a dangerous weapon during the commission of a violent crime; failure to report a firearm brought into the territory; possession of ammunition; and first-degree reckless endangerment in connection with the pre-dawn shooting death of Phillips on July 7, 2013.

Presiding Judge Michael Dunston had returned to St. Thomas and heard from the jurors via video conference on a small television monitor inside the courtroom.

However, Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady was inside the courtroom representing Dunston, insuring that the verdict form was correct and carrying out administrative duties.

Tension inside the courtroom was high as the clerk prepared to read the verdict.

About 15 supporters each from Ritter's family and from Phillips' family had been following the case during the course of the two days and were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the gallery to hear the verdict announced.

Brady warned those in the courtroom that no outbursts or displays of emotion of any kind would be allowed from anyone, regardless of the verdict.

"If there is anyone here now who does not believe that they can control themselves, I ask you to leave now," he said.

No one left.

Nine deputy marshals were dressed in tactical gear and stood strategically along both sides of the center aisle of the courtroom.

The courtroom was still, only the light hum of the air-conditioning unit could be heard before the first verdict was red.

Soft collective sighs were heard from the defense side of the courtroom as some family members could be seen shaking their head in agreement. Ritter had his head down while the verdict was read, and he maintained that posture.

Some of Phillips' family gasped as the verdict was read. His grandmother and niece quietly shed tears as each count was read and the words "not guilty" echoed through the courtroom.

Dunston thanked and dismissed the jurors, and once court was adjourned, marshals ushered Phillips' family from the courtroom and escorted them to the parking lot before Ritter's supporters were allowed to leave. About a dozen law enforcement officers, including deputy marshals, corrections officers and police officers, lined a retaining wall that borders the parking lot to the east. Other police units waited inside and just outside the court's perimeter fence.

Outside the courtroom, Ritter's attorney, Michael Joseph, said he was pleased with the verdict and thought it was consistent with the evidence and what any reasonable jury would have returned.

Phillips' mother, Helen Phillips, and his father, Vincent Phillips, both expressed disbelief in the verdict handed up by the jurors. Helen Phillips said she sat through the trial and expected that the jurors would have at least come back with a verdict of voluntary manslaughter in the case.

"If not first- or second-degree murder, I was expecting a manslaughter conviction because it was clear," she said. "But the jury has spoken and has made their decision, so it is something that we will have to live with now because that is how our justice system works."

Vincent Phillips said most of the trial hinged on the testimony of the loan eyewitness, Phillips' cousin Dexter Swanston, and he did not think that Swanston was able to bring across the facts and details of the events as clearly as was needed.

During the course of the week, Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson, who prosecuted the case with Assistant Attorney General Heather Baker, presented witnesses, including forensic technicians, a firearms expert, the medical examiner, former detective Kirk Filleteau and Swanston, who was with Phillips the night of the shooting.

During his testimony, Swanston testified that he and Phillips were leaving a big house party, and Phillips had to maneuver the truck to get out of their parking spot. He said Ritter then came by and was giving Phillips directions on how to get out of the spot, and Phillips got irritated and told Ritter that he did not need any assistance.

Swanston testified that the two men began to argue, and just as Swanston was trying to calm Phillips down, he heard shots ring out. He said he saw the muzzle blast from the firearm but did not see where the gun was pulled from or how the three shots - including one to Phillips head - were fired.

The defense presented one witness, who testified that he was working at the function and heard shots ring out in the area but said he could tell the shots came from multiple firearms and not just one.

Ritter, who had been jailed since his arrest last year, was released from custody Thursday afternoon.

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

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