Man sentenced to 20 years for Kirwan Terrace shooting


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By CORLISS SMITHEN
Daily News Staff
ST. THOMAS — Twenty years behind bars was the sentence handed down Wednesday by V.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Dunston on a man who was convicted of almost killing another man in a March 2009 drive-by shooting in Kirwan Terrace housing community that left a 16-year-old boy dead.
Deiby Billu initially was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, third-degree assault, two counts of unauthorized use of an unlicensed firearm, second-degree murder, first-degree assault and three weapons charges.
On April 21, following two days of testimony, jurors returned a mixed verdict. They convicted Billu of first-degree attempted murder, third-degree assault and two counts of using a dangerous weapon during the commission of a crime of violence but acquitted him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree assault and the three weapons charges.
According to police reports, at approximately 9:50 a.m. March 11, 911 emergency dispatchers were alerted to shots fired in Kirwan Terrace. Police officers who responded found two injured people. Khalif Leader, 16, was pronounced dead at the scene and Kareem Charleswell, 20, was taken by ambulance to Schneider Hospital where he immediately underwent surgery.

At Wednesday’s sentencing, territorial public defender Robert Leycock said the jury found his client guilty without any evidence and requested a judgment of acquittal.

“We had a situation where one particular piece of evidence was presented to the court — a signed photo of Billu picked out of a photo array — but the witness, Kareem Charleswell, said he doesn’t recall making a statement to the police or picking out a picture. So the verdict of the jury is not substantiated by that evidence. At trial, Charleswell and Yakim Yugliz said they did not know Billu,” Leycock said.

Leycock also pointed out that there was no forensic evidence connecting his client to the crimes.

“We have the jury erroneously convicting Billu with no evidence. The government did substantial DNA work on the car and there was nothing tying Billu to any of the crimes. All we have are the allegations of the FBI. We have a young man fighting for his life based on nonexistent evidence. He was found guilty on nothing, whether testimony or forensic evidence,” Leycock said.

Assistant Attorney General Renee Gumbs-Carty strongly disagreed and requested that the judge deny Leycock’s motion.

“These were witnesses in witness-protection program who feared for their lives and saw the defendant commit those acts on that specific day,” Gumbs-Carty said.

Dunston agreed. He explained that forensic scientists could not tie Billu to the scene because of the absence of or insufficient DNA.

“The court notes that some kind of DNA — blood, body fluid or forensic evidence of that variety is present in only about one in 10 homicide cases,” Dunston said. “The court heard the testimony of both these young men when they refuted their earlier identification of Billu, written statements and a photo on which Charleswell placed his initials. The court cannot ignore the code of silence that pervades gang activity in this community where no one would want to be seen as a rat. At the time of this trial, I believe the jury made a rational and reasoned decision. Therefore, I deny the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”

Although the jury did not believe Billu killed Leader, Simone Thomas, Leader’s mother, is convinced he is responsible for her son’s death, and lashed out at Billu Wednesday.

“From the day that happened, March 11, 2009, I just want to tell you, you don’t know how you changed my life. Right now, the hate and anger has reached to the fullest. You didn’t need to do that, you don’t even know my son. You will always be nothing. You better be glad your family can see you and hear you. You’ll never be nothing. I hate you from the pit of my heart. You took my son. It makes me sick just watching you,” Thomas said, as she berated Billu.

Following Thomas’ expression of anger and hurt, the court proceeded with sentencing.

Gumbs-Carty recommended that Billu be sentenced to the maximum — five years for the assault, 25 years for the attempted murder and 20 years each for the weapons charges — as she highlighted Billu’s lack of remorse.

“He’s blaming everything but himself; there’s no DNA, no ballistics, he can’t see how the jury can tie him in to this case. We have him here today saying the jury made a wrong decision, they were prejudiced against him. He’s not denying what he did on March 11. He sits here without remorse, sits here with his callous, hardened heart. At some point, he has to come to the understanding that he did something wrong,” Gumbs-Carty said.

In his response, Leycock reiterated his earlier argument that Billu was convicted although there was no evidence that tied him to the case.

“Why should it be that when they say they did it, it’s correct, but when they say they didn’t do it, that’s incorrect? We believe in the competence of the jury, but sometimes they’re wrong and we’re saying in this case, they were wrong. Billu maintains his innocence and we ask the court to sentence Billu to the mandatory minimum and to run them concurrently,” Leycock said.

Billu, when given a chance to address the court, opted to remain silent.

Dunston then announced his punishment — 15 years for the two counts of unauthorized possession of a firearm that were merged into one and a concurrent 20-year term for the attempted murder charge that was consolidated with the third-degree assault, a $25,000 fine for the weapons conviction and $75 in court costs. Billu was given credit for the one year and 11 days he has already served since his arrest.

“The letters submitted on Billu’s behalf paint him as a responsible young man who doesn’t appear to this court to fit the mold of a killer, gang member or one prone to drive-by shootings. The defendant asserts his innocence and he has every right to do so. This case brings no one joy. Members of Billu’s family will suffer the loss of his companionship and Charleswell will carry for the rest of his life the scars from this incident,” Dunston said.

Dunston advised the defendant of his right to appeal, but noted that a petition already had been filed on May 24.

“That notice of appeal, the court will consider it filed today,” Dunston said. “If I have sentenced you inappropriately, they will tell me and I apologize to you in advance for any time you have served if you didn’t commit these offenses. But I believe, based on the testimony I heard, that you committed them.”

During Billu’s two-day trial, which began April 22, prosecutors relied on the testimony of several witnesses, including Charleswell.

Charleswell, however, told the jury that he had no memory of what occurred on March 11.

Charleswell said he remembered seeing a blue Taurus, a man pulling a gun and after that he started running. He said Leader, whom he referred to by the name “Batman,” got shot.

Charleswell said he could remember only up to that point. He also said he did not recall speaking to a Drug Enforcement Agency agent while he was at the hospital.

Even after Charleswell was given a copy of the statement he gave to investigators and handed a picture of Billu that he signed, Charleswell denied identifying Billu as the shooter to the DEA agent.

Throughout the trial, Leycock insisted that there was no forensic or DNA evidence that connected Billu to the shooting.

His argument was corroborated by forensic technician Detective Maja Hamden, who testified that DNA samples taken from Billu and compared to DNA taken from the car that was allegedly used in the shooting were sent to a DNA lab in Deerfield, Fla., and there was not a match.

— Contact reporter Corliss Smithen at 774-8772 ext 302 or
e-mail csmithen@dailynews.vi.

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