St. Croix murder trial opens today


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ST. CROIX - Opening statements are expected to take place today when the V.I. Superior Court murder trial against Elijah Ritter resumes at 9 a.m.

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 July 7, 2013, shooting death of Sheldon Phillips.

July selection took place Monday and lasted through the morning and into the early afternoon before Presiding Judge Michael Dunston. Dunston, who is a sitting judge on St. Thomas, was assigned 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.

According to police, a large house party in Estate Butler Bay was wrapping up just before sunrise when emergency dispatchers received reports of shots fired there.

Witnesses - including anonymous callers to Crime Stoppers USVI - told police that Phillips, 31, got into an argument with another man - now identified as Ritter - about a parking or driving situation and that Ritter pulled out a gun and fired several shots, one of which hit Phillips behind the ear as he sat in his vehicle.

Phillips was taken to Luis Hospital, but he was unresponsive when he arrived at the emergency room and subsequently died of his injuries.

The affidavit in support of Ritter's arrest warrant has been placed under seal because police said they still are investigating the case and there could be additional arrests.

However, Ritter's attorney, Michael Joseph, filed a motion seeking to unseal the affidavit, saying that he would be in a better position to begin preparing a defense if he has access to the affidavit and the information it contains.

Dunston ordered that the prosecution, led by Assistant Attorney General Cornelius Evans, submit a detailed sealed information summarizing the investigation for inspection and specifically indicating witnesses and other parties that unsealing the affidavit would jeopardize.

Ritter has strong family ties to the community, but he also has a criminal history, which includes being arrested as an 18-year-old student at St. Croix Educational Complex and later convicted for stabbing another student multiple times during a fight.

While he was on pretrial release in that case, Ritter was arrested on charges that he shot another man, but the victim later recanted his statements and the charges were dismissed.

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

After the jurors were selected Monday, Dunston was forced to recess court for the day because of a damaged water pipe at the court that interrupted water service to the building.

Dunston also allowed court employees to leave for the day at 1:30 p.m. Monday because of the lack of water in the building.

The problem is expected to be corrected and court expected to resume with normal operation today at 8 a.m.

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

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