One of two men convicted of murdering law clerk will stand trial again after appeal
Published: August 20, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Auriel Frett, who was convicted of murder in 2011, likely will not get a second chance to prove himself innocent until next year.
In June, the V.I. Supreme Court overturned Frett's life sentence in connection with the 2008 murder of law clerk Gabriel Lerner.
On Monday, V.I. Superior Court Judge Harold Willocks, who initially sentenced Frett in July 2011, scheduled Frett's pre-trial for Dec. 16, meaning his trial likely will not begin until January or thereafter.
All motions and pleas need to be in to the court by Nov. 15, and any responses need to be in by Nov. 30.
Frett, who is again facing a charge of first-degree murder, was supposed to be in the courtroom Monday but was not able to make an appearance.
His appearance had been requested, though the V.I. Corrections Bureau did not follow through with the request, despite being given a 10-day advance notice. Frett currently is imprisoned in Virginia.
Frett's life sentence and conviction were overturned after his appeal, which argued that the V.I. Attorney General's Office had used a statement that Frett provided to police before obtaining counsel as "substantive evidence."
In the Supreme Court's order, Chief Justice Rhys Hodge said using the statement violated Frett's right to due process.
Many members of the legal community followed the case closely in 2011. Many of them who worked within the V.I. Superior Court recused themselves because they knew Lerner, who was a clerk for Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar, and felt their acquaintance with him was a conflict of interest.
Willocks usually is based out of St. Croix, so it was not a conflict for him to oversee the trial, although he expressed disgust at the killing during the trial's first go-round.
"Why? For what reason? Why was this necessary?" he had asked.
According to court documents, Lerner was on his way to Bible study at Lindqvist Beach when he was murdered. He stopped to give Frett and another man, John Jared Southwell, a ride, according to court documents.
Southwell, a co-defendant who was 17 at the time of Lerner's death, was sentenced to 20 years for murder and 15 years for robbery in exchange for his testimony against Frett.
Southwell testified that on Oct. 26, 2008, he was with Frett in Smith Bay when Lerner offered them a ride to Red Hook. Southwell said Frett robbed Lerner of his wallet and took Lerner's Ford Focus.
Frett and Southwell drove around with Lerner in the back seat for quite some time, making several purchases with Lerner's credit card, Southwell said. Frett then stuffed Lerner in the trunk of the car and then drove to a remote area in Bordeaux, led Lerner down a path and shot him once in the back of the head, killing him, Southwell said.
Southwell said he and Frett drove around in Lerner's car until police caught them in the bush at Scott Free on Oct. 28. After their capture, Southwell gave a statement to police in the presence of his mother and took police to Lerner's partially decomposed body.
Frett gave two statements to police, the latter of which was used as his primary statement because it was most current and was given after he received counsel. Frett's initial statement, given to police on Oct. 28, 2008, said he and Southwell received a ride from a "white boy" at Cassi Hill and that the "white boy" had said he worked for Hollar.
During his trial, Frett testified that Southwell admitted to killing Lerner, and that Frett had never been with Lerner the day of his death.
Prosecutors introduced Frett's Oct. 28, 2008, statement into evidence because it contradicted Frett's testimony.
In his opinion overturning Frett's murder conviction, Hodge found that the admission of the statement against Frett had contributed to the jury finding Frett guilty. Thus it was used for "substantive" purposes, and the defendant deserves a new trial, the Supreme Court ruled.
"Here, it is clear that the trial court found that the prior statement had been obtained in violation of Frett's Miranda rights, and thus must be suppressed. Consequently, it should not have been admitted for substantive purposes," the ruling states.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email email@example.com.