The V.I. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday on St. Thomas that former Superior Court judge, Leon Kendall, was guilty of indirect criminal contempt stemming from a July 2009 legal opinion he wrote condemning an earlier V.I. Supreme Court ruling that overturned one of Kendall’s decisions.
Kendall wrote a 32-page scathing opinion objecting to the high court’s ruling in May 2009, which had overturned decisions he made in the murder case involving Basheem Ford and Jermaine Paris for fatally shooting off-duty V.I. Police Officer Ariel Frett in February 2007.
Chief Justice Rhys Hodge and Associate Justices Ive Swan and Maria Cabret filed and dated their opinion Wednesday after it was considered on Sept. 15.
The justices ruled that “Kendall is guilty of indirect criminal contempt by obstructing the administration of justice, failing to comply with the May 13, 2009 Opinion and Order, and misbehaving in his official transactions.”
Earlier this year in February, Retired V.I. Superior Court Judge Edgar Ross, who was appointed as Supreme Court special master to preside over the case, recommended to the high court that Kendall be found not guilty. The court disagreed but did accept some of Ross’ recommendations.
To fully understand the contempt charges against Kendall, it’s necessary to review part of the Ford and Paris trial in January 2009. Kendall had a dispute with the prosecuting attorney, Jesse Bethel, before the jury trial was to begin, in which Bethel offered an involuntary manslaughter plea agreement via telephone.
Kendall ordered the prosecution to uphold the plea, but Bethel said he misspoke and meant to make an offer for voluntary manslaughter. Kendall enforced the telephonic agreement and canceled the jury selection setting a change-of-plea hearing.
Bethel didn’t show up at the plea hearing, because he had appealed Kendall’s decision and was subsequently arrested and held by the Bureau of Corrections for hours due to Kendall issuing a warrant.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer filed a motion requesting the V.I. Supreme Court to vacate Kendall’s order. In May 2009, the court ruled in the government’s favor, reversing Kendall’s decision and ordering the case to go to trial.
Kendall recused himself from the case on July 7, 2009, when he published the scornful opinion, which stated that he was too biased against Bethel, which would cause him to look unfavorably upon the prosecution’s case.
In the opinion, Kendall called into question the integrity of the V.I. Supreme Court with inflammatory language when he said the Supreme Court order which reversed Kendall’s decision was “clearly improper,” that its conclusions “make no sense” and are “erroneous,” and that the Court’s mandate should be given “no credence.”
Ford was found shot dead in the Market Square area on Aug. 9, 2009, and Paris was later acquitted of all charges in an April 2010 trial.
The V.I. Supreme Court issued an order in August 2009, setting a November 2009 hearing ordering Kendall to show cause for why he shouldn’t be held in contempt for not complying with the appellate court’s mandate and making remarks about the high court in his public opinion.
In April 2010, Kendall appeared before Ross in response to the Aug. order and pleaded not guilty and moved for an acquittal, which Ross denied on May 4, 2010.
Ross let Kendall present his case in a showcase hearing in August 2010, when Kendall offered four exhibits into evidence and rested his case, according to court records. In December 2010, Ross recommended Kendall be found not guilty.
Wednesday’s ruling disagreed with Ross and found Kendall in indirect criminal contempt. The justices said that Kendall couldn’t invoke First Amendment guarantees of free speech because he used the language not as a private citizen, but in a judicial opinion.
Kendall posted the July 2009 opinion on the superior Court’s website, published it in the Virgin Islands Reports, and on Westlaw and LexisNexis, and the justices rejected that an offensive utterance must be tolerated under the First Amendment, citing that judges are held to higher standards when performing government functions.