V.I. Supreme Court upholds verdict in Cockayne case

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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Supreme Court ruled that juror misconduct was not an issue during the second trial that convicted two men of assaulting Jamie Cockayne the night he was fatally stabbed in 2007.

Cockayne, 21, of Pennsylvania, was stabbed eight times outside the Front Yard bar on St. John shortly after midnight June 19, 2007. One of the cuts perforated Cockayne's femoral artery.

The defendants, Anselmo Boston and Kamal Thomas, initially were charged with first-degree murder, among other charges, during a first trial, but a jury found them guilty of only third-degree assault, using a dangerous weapon during a crime of violence and simple assault.

However, both defendants received the right to a new trial when new evidence emerged.

Boston was convicted in 2009 of third-degree assault, using a dangerous weapon while committing a violent crime and simple assault. He was sentenced to 10.5 years imprisonment.

Kamal Thomas was convicted in 2010 of third-degree assault, using a dangerous weapon during the assault and two counts of threatening a witness from the second trial. He was sentenced to 13.5 years imprisonment.

Last week, the V.I. Supreme Court issued an opinion on the appeals of both Boston and Thomas, both of whom argued that the V.I. Superior Court had erred in reviewing the defendants' case, in which they claimed that jurors in a second trial were prejudicial.

"Although this is a close case, we defer to the trial court's credibility determinations and we conclude that the trial court's finding that no misconduct occurred prior to deliberations was not clearly erroneous," the opinion, authored by Chief Justice Rhys Hodge, stated.

In March 2012, the V.I. Supreme Court heard the first appeals from Boston and Thomas and issued an opinion shortly thereafter that sent both cases back to the Superior Court.

The opinion in Thomas' case asked the lower court to determine whether, as Thomas's appeal contended, jurors had their minds made up before hearing evidence in the case.

The appeal also claimed that one juror told the others, "Those guys killed the white boy and got away with it, and we have to teach them a lesson."

In their opinion on Thomas' appeal, the Supreme Court justices said the claims of jury misconduct, if substantiated, could result in a new trial for both defendants.

"Here, the trial court's failure to conduct even a limited evidentiary hearing to determine whether the alleged misconduct actually occurred was an abuse of discretion," the Supreme Court ruled. "We therefore remand this matter to the Superior Court to hold an evidentiary hearing as to potential juror misconduct, to make appropriate findings, and upon those findings decide to either grant or deny the defendant's motion for a new trial."

Boston's appeal challenged the weight of the evidence in the simple assault charge against him. The Supreme Court found his conviction was justified based on the evidence, but that if the allegation in Thomas' appeal turned out to be true, it would affect both cases.

Subsequently, the Superior Court reviewed the case, again, though the defendants argued in July 2013 that the court also made error in review of the case by restricting the scope of the review too greatly.

While the Supreme Court's most recent opinion in the matter affirmed the defendants' argument to an extent, the error was not egregious enough to again remand the case back to Superior Court.

"While the trial court misunderstood this Court's mandate and its power under the Federal Rules of Evidence, any such error was harmless because the jurors were aware, through evidence introduced at trial and not objected to by Thomas or Boston, that Cockayne had died and that his death had been investigated as a homicide," Hodge wrote.

Jahlil Ward, 24, also was a part of the case, though he has not joined his co-defendants' appeals.

Ward pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in January 2012 for beating Cockayne to death and received a sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

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

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