Prosecution calls victim's cousin to stand in St. Croix murder trial


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ST. CROIX - Testimony will continue today in the V.I. Superior Court murder trial of Elijah Ritter, as the prosecution continues to present its case before Presiding Judge Michael Dunston.

Ritter is charged with first-degree murder; 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 Sheldon Phillips July 7, 2013.

July selection took place Monday and when court resumed Tuesday morning, jurors heard opening statements from attorneys on both sides that provided a glimpse at their cases.

Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant Attorney General Heather Baker, said he would present witnesses including forensic technicians, the medical examiner, V.I. Police officers and Phillips' cousin, who was with Phillips the night of the shooting, along with other evidence that would prove that Ritter was the shooter.

Phillips' cousin, Dexter Swanston, was the first witness called to give testimony Tuesday, and he told the jury that he and Phillips had gone to a big house party near Butler Bay in his truck, but when they were ready to leave their truck was blocked in.

Swanston testified that Phillips was driving and had to maneuver the truck to get out of their parking spot. As Phillips inched back and forth in the truck, a man - who Swanston identified in court as Ritter - came by and was giving Phillips directions on how to get out of the spot, and Phillips got irritated and told the man that he did not need any assistance, Swanston said.

Swanston testified that the two men began to argue, and just as Swanston was trying to calm Phillips down, he heard shots ring out and saw the muzzle blast from Ritter's firearm.

He said he did not see where the gun was pulled from or how the shots were fired, but he realized that Phillips had been shot and was seriously wounded.

Swanston testified that he reached under the passenger seat where he had seen Phillips hide a gun earlier that night to get the gun to protect himself, but the gun was not there and he realized that Phillips had a gun in his hand and took it away, not knowing whether the shooter was coming to shoot him next.

"I didn't know where he went or if he was coming for me next, so in a panic, I grab the gun quick to protect myself," he said.

Swanston said he got help from a bystander to put Phillips in the bed of the truck, and they drove to Luis Hospital to seek medical assistance, but by the time they got there Phillips already was dead.

Swanston said he spoke with police officers following the murder and identified Ritter as the shooter from a photo array that was presented with the pictures of six men.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Michael Joseph asked Swanston how he was unable to identify the shooter the night of the incident but did so four days later.

Joseph and Swanston disagreed about what Swanston said to police the night of the killing.

Joseph said he looked at Swanston's video statement to police, and he recalled Swanston saying that it was dark in the area, it was hard to identify who the shooter was and that he would try but he was not sure.

Swanston said he did not recall making any of those statements to police, and he also said he did not refuse to submit samples for DNA testing to be done on the firearm as Joseph claimed.

Joseph asked the court to have Swanston remain under the subpoena to come to court, because he intends to recall him when the defense puts on its case later this week.

In his opening statement, Joseph told the jurors that he was battling the case for an innocent man charged with a crime he did not commit.

He said the only gun the jurors will see will be Phillips' gun, and even with testimony, the jurors will not be able to tell who pulled their gun or fired first.

Joseph said Swanston's video statement to police will tell a lot about what happened before, during and after the shooting.

"I dare him to introduce that video," he said. "It wasn't until four days later he told police that he saw the shooter as he was walking to the truck."

Joseph said there are dozens of inconsistencies in Swanston's statement.

During the day Tuesday, jurors also heard testimony from forensic technicians Julissa Lansiquot and Allan Lewit, who testified about the evidence found at the scene and inside the truck.

The truck had been hit by gunfire twice on the driver's door, and the third bullet went into Phillips' head, according to their testimony. In processing the truck, technicians found a .38-caliber revolver that was fully loaded and had not been recently fired, the forensic technicians said.

Dunston, who is a sitting judge on St. Thomas, was assigned to hear the case last year after all of the Superior Court judges on St. Croix recused themselves from hearing the matter, citing multiple conflicts - knowing both Ritter's family and Phillips' family and because Phillips' mother is an employee of the court in the St. Croix District.

Ritter has been in jail at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility since his arrest two weeks after Phillips' shooting. Bail initially was set at $1 million but later was reduced to $500,000.

V.I. Police Officer Kirk Filleteau, the case agent, was called as the final witness Tuesday afternoon, and he will return to the witnesses stand when the trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

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

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