V.I. Supreme Court upholds decision not to let rapist change his guilty plea


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ST. THOMAS - A man who pleaded guilty to first-degree aggravated rape in 2010 is arguing that the territorial court wrongfully denied him the right to change his plea.

The V.I. Supreme Court rejected Thomas Hightree's claim in a court opinion released Friday, though it did state that the V.I. Superior Court erred in two decisions, one which could give Hightree the chance to withdraw his current guilty plea.

In July 2008, the V.I. Police Department began investigating Hightree's unlawful sexual contact with a girl, at the time 10 years old, who said that her neighbor, Hightree, coerced her into performing sexual acts two years before.

The girl told police that Hightree had her look at pornographic magazines while she would lay still and he would perform oral sex on her, according to the court opinion written by Supreme Court Associate Justice Ive Swan. He then forced her to perform sexual acts on him, according to the opinion.

Hightree pleaded guilty in August 2010 to first-degree aggravated rape, one of 11 counts that he initially faced, Swan wrote.

"Each time Hightree was asked whether he understood the trial court's questions and directives, Hightree responded in the affirmative," the opinion stated.

In court, after pleading guilty, Hightree changed his mind and decided that he wanted to return to his initial plea of not guilty, at which point the court decided it was too late, though it welcomed a motion to address the matter prior to his sentencing, the Supreme Court opinion stated. Hightree never filed a motion, Swan wrote.

The Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court's decision to deny Hightree the ability to change his plea without a motion.

However, the high court ruled that the Superior Court erred when, during sentencing, it instructed Hightree to pay restitution to the victim in the amount of $3,500 to cover counseling costs.

The Supreme Court ruled that because the restitution never was mentioned prior to sentencing, not even in the plea agreement, the lower court was in error.

The error can be resolved in one of two ways, according to the Supreme Court.

"The interests of justice are best served by providing the Superior Court with the discretion, on remand, to either modify its judgment and commitment to eliminate restitution, or to grant Hightree the option to withdraw his guilty plea," Swan wrote, citing case law.

The decision again will be up to Superior Court.

Additionally, the Superior Court mistakenly ordered Hightree to register as a sex offender within five years of being paroled or released from imprisonment, the opinion stated.

"According to the Virgin Islands Code, Hightree is required to register as a sex offender prior to his release from confinement," Swan wrote.

The error is expected to be addressed when the court makes a decision as to how to approach the restitution element of Hightree's sentence.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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