Supreme Court affirms trial court ruling on juror in Dowdye case

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The V.I. Supreme Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it removed a juror accused of making covert Masonic signals to a murder defendant during a 2007 trial, and affirmed the lower court's ruling.

This is the second time the territory's high court has taken up issues surrounding the removal of juror Joel Lloyd from a sequestered jury that was hearing the case against Joel Dowdye, a former V.I. police detective who eventually was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, 22-year-old Sherett James, and trying to kill her companion, Daren "Bogle" Stevens, in a room at the Bunker Hill Guest House on St. Thomas in March 2006.

Dowdye was convicted of six of the eight felony charges against him and was sentenced to life without parole, plus 40 years.

His arrest report noted that he had a tattoo known to be associated with Freemasonry or Mason organizations, and the trial court extensively questioned potential jurors about any membership or relationship with the Masons and other affiliated organizations during jury selection.

Lloyd did not answer "yes" to any of the Mason questions and eventually was selected as Juror No. 3 at Dowdye's trial, according to the Supreme Court opinion issued this week.

During the trial, the judge received a tip that Dowdye and a juror were exchanging signs and signals. Stevens' brother also reported that he saw one of the jurors exchanging signals with Dowdye, and the judge placed on the record that she had seen Juror No. 3 make a wiping gesture on his face, to which Dowdye immediately made the same gesture, as if in response, according to court documents.

A marshal also reported that while taking Dowdye back to lockup, Dowdye said "wait until tomorrow when they find out that he is a Mason."

Prosecutors asked that Juror No. 3 be dismissed and replaced "out of an abundance of caution" - a request Dowdye's lawyer opposed.

The trial court dismissed Lloyd and replaced him.

Dowdye appealed his convictions, contending that his constitutional rights were violated by Lloyd's removal from the jury.

In September 2011, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to V.I. Superior Court for an evidentiary hearing to make findings of fact about the decision to remove Lloyd from the jury.

At that hearing, on Oct. 30, 2012, Lloyd denied any affiliation with the Masons, said he was not aware that he was seen making wiping gestures to his face that appeared to be reciprocated by Dowdye, and testified that his intense focus on Dowdye during trial was to observe Dowdye's reactions, the Supreme Court opinion notes.

After that hearing, the trial court concluded that Lloyd was not being truthful.

The trial court concluded that it was authorized to take judicial notice of Lloyd's conduct in open court during trial, that findings on issues of juror credibility and honesty are within its province and that it has a special relationship with the jury that places it in a better position to determine what a situation requires, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

The Superior Court entered an order in November 2012 finding that Lloyd's removal was "appropriate, justified, and not an abuse of discretion."

Dowdye appealed that decision, contending that the evidence was insufficient to remove Lloyd from the jury pool, and the trial court erred in its assumption that Lloyd was exchanging Masonic hand signals with Dowdye, thereby violating Dowdye's rights.

The V.I. Supreme Court decision this week upheld the trial court's decision, finding that the hearing was properly conducted according to law and the principals required, and that rulings from the hearing "were well within the trial court's discretion."

The trial court noted that the decision to remove Lloyd was not based on whether Dowdye was a Mason or not, but was instead "based on the strong circumstantial evidence indicating contact or signaling between Dowdye and Lloyd during trial," the opinion states.

It notes that the trial court was "well within its discretion" to remove Lloyd, "due to the circumstantial evidence that not only indicates that he was untruthful about his Masonic affiliations at voir dire, but also that he communicated with Dowdye during trial."

Associate Justice Ive Swan authored the majority opinion, while Associate Justice Maria Cabret dissented.

Cabret opines that the majority applied the wrong standard to the trial court's decision, and contends that the parties should be ordered to provide supplemental briefing on the question of whether the trial court's error in this case was harmless.

Designated Justice Thomas Moore, who sat in on the case when Chief Justice Rhys Hodge recused himself, wrote that he fully agrees with Cabret's dissenting opinion, and having reviewed a full transcript of Dowdye's trial, he would affirm Dowdye's convictions "because the error is harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of his guilt."

However, Moore joined the majority opinion "because our September 14, 2011 Opinion represents the law of the case and the Superior Court committed no error in complying with our mandate."

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