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With schools across the territory getting ready for a Sept. 2 opening date, V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory told the community the Education Department is focused on "putting in the framework we need to support our students, our teachers and our administrators."
I am writing to express my thoughts and concerns regarding the handling of crime scenes and prosecution of criminals in the USVI.
Having been a resident of the island of St. Thomas for 10 years (1997-2007), paying taxes and being a registered voter, as well as a survivor of a brutal, horrific attack and then going through the justice system myself, I feel I have the right, as well as the perspective to offer my opinions, and suggestions on improving the relationship of the police department and the judicial process with the victims, survivors and family members of same.
I am writing specifically in relation to the well-publicized attack and murder of Jamie Cockayne, the seemingly perceived indifference, ineptitude, and overall blunders by police and attorneys that lead to the guilty jury verdicts being set aside for the three defendants.
There are two points I'd like to make with respect to this case: the first being the personal attacks on the family. The local media has printed some inflammatory letters and editorials that have come off as just plain nasty (and untrue) to the family. Rewards were paid to the people who came forward with information that led to the conviction of the perpetrators (as is the case in many criminal proceedings). Witness were not "paid to testify untruthfully" as some have suggested. There are things people have said to them personally regarding the intense scrutiny the USVI has come under due to the family going public nationwide with their criticisms and concerns with the way the investigation and judicial proceedings played out.
The accusations and vitriol being directed toward the Cockayne family (in particular, the outspoken and tenacious mother of the murder victim, Jean) are unfair and biased, in my opinion.
The Cockaynes are not personally responsible for harming the economy of the Virgin Island; it's the criminal element who are attacking and murdering citizens and tourists alike and seemingly getting away with it. The same criminals keep getting processed through the justice system and are back on the streets only to commit more crimes because they feel they can get away with it.
The second point I'd like to make is about the sloppy, inept, indifferent attitude of some (not all) of the law enforcement individuals who respond, process the crime scene and investigate the crime. It appears that proper procedures are not being followed with regard to interviewing witnesses, following up on tips, evidence gathering/handling, and questioning and arresting suspects. Timely dissemination of information to victims and families wanting answers, and to the legal representation of defendants and plaintiff is woefully inadequate.
Many of the suspects are related to the very people who are charged with protecting the citizenry and visitors to our beautiful islands. The criminals end up going free because evidence is "lost", or procedures in securing and processing evidence are not followed, such as chain of custody,or contamination of the crime scene because of improper handling of evidence with the end result being a suspect is released or if it goes to trial, ends in a mistrial or verdict of not guilty.
This is shameful. The VI has one of the worst rates of criminal convictions in the country because of corruption, nepotism, ineptitude, and plain old indifference on the part of people charged to do the job they've pledged to do.
The lack of protection for the people who do come forward and cooperate, the distrust of the police in general due to corruption on the parts of some of the police force (remember the survey done by the Daily News some years ago regarding how the public at large views our local law enforcement?) is also a factor in why some of these reprobates go free, only to commit the same crimes or worse on the unsuspecting public.
Though I no longer live on the island, I still follow the events that happen on island via the online newspaper and the "coconut telegraph". In the last two years alone, three people I knew have been murdered with no due process of law to close any of these cases thus far. Two of the murders never even made the papers as far as I know. Another case of "he/she jus' anodder white bwoy (or gyel)". Since when is one life worth more than another just by virtue of being a different race, or not "bahn heah", or being a tourist?
Which brings me to the suggestion of how to improve the way crime is treated in the Virgin Islands. "Who is she to say what is best for our islands?" no doubt some will ask, with resentment. Especially since "Meh not bahn heah". However, I made this place my home, and contributed to the society and economy of the Virgin Islands. This is what gives me the right to speak out. I was not just a fly-by-nighter here to make a few bucks and party for awhile, or exploit the local people for personal gain. This was my HOME.
We have a well-insulated upper echelon of people who were elected by the people they are supposed to serve who have no clue what it is like to have been victimized by criminals, then go through the process of "justice" here in the islands. The people have the right to be protected by our laws being enforced equitably and promptly. Our bloated government continues to rape the local economy while balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class people who contribute the most to our economy. The money that is budgeted to pay the over-blown salaries of our government should be better-spent on proper training procedures for law enforcement with regards to crime scene processing and sensitivity when dealing with victims and their surviving families and friends, more victim advocate services with better training and reinstating a local crime processing lab with training from he mainland.
It is my opinion that the morale of many of our prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement, victim advocate and other attendant services that are available to surviving victims and their families and friends may make them apathetic in their performance of their duties due to being underpaid and overworked. The budget only allows so much funding for these services, while ensuring that our governor, lieutenant governor and our 15 "necessary" senators continue to receive some of the highest salaries in the country, as well as raises, while the rest of the population struggles to meet the basic needs of survival. But that is another subject entirely.
My final thought here is to commend those who perform their job to the best of their ability with the (woefully inadequate) tools they have to work with. Not all who are in law enforcement are corrupt, apathetic or untrained in the performance of their duties. I would imagine it must be difficult for the individuals who do their best to uphold the principles of the job they were hired to do, when so many others either don't care, or are corrupt or simply do not have the proper training to perform their duties.
Personally, my experience with the justice system ten years ago was a mixed bag of results. I was fortunate to have several detectives who were dedicated to finding the facts, following up with proper investigative techniques, processing of the crime scene, off-island evidence analysis (though it took some two years to finally process the evidence, which appeared to be "lost" for a time) and a few people who were brave enough to come forward with what they knew to help someone they didn't even know because it was the right thing to do.
My case ended with the two defendants taking a plea bargain, which I did not agree to. I didn't even know the plea arrangement was being held on the day it was being held. Just by chance, a friend who'd been through a similar crime whose trial I sat through, was waiting for the verdict to be handed down. She assured me the night before that I didn't need to be there for the verdict. The next morning, she called me from the courthouse and told me to get there right away. I thought it was because the verdict had come down and she needed me to be there. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I left my husband home, thinking he didn't need to be there. Imagine my shock and surprise, then anger to find that the defendants were on the docket for their plea bargain to be heard later that afternoon! I hurriedly called my husband to get down to the courthouse with very little explanation until he got there. The friend who called me just happened to be browing the dockets posted on the various courtroom doors and saw my case on the list. No phone call from the prosecuting attorney, nothing! I would have missed this court date had she not called me. I would have missed my opportunity to present my victim impact statement, which I have a legal right to and cannot be denied. My husband was denied this opportunity because of "time constraints", which is clearly a violation of the local law on the books that no one bothers to enforce. The prosecuting attorney never even presented a closing argument. Her statement to the court? "I will let the victim speak for herself". I felt the decision of the judge rested solely on my shoulders. I felt abandoned by the person who was supposed to represent me, only to find it was the state's case; not mine. I was merely the star witness for the prosecution.
I am sure both defendants have since been released after being handed a fifteen year sentence each, with one serving 8 1/2 years and the other serving 10 years, with the rest to be on probation. I do not feel that justice was properly served here in that the more serious charges were dismissed from the original case and they were allowed to plead to a crime that didn't even begin to cover the horror and pain and suffering that was inflicted upon me. I had to go to Golden Grove on an annual basis to plead MY case as to why they should not go free before serving their full sentence-When do I get parole from what I live with on a daily basis?
It is my hope that justice prevails in the Cockayne case and the facts are presented properly and honestly to allow the jury to again do the right thing and send the message to the criminals that this abhorrent behavior will not be tolerated and to the outside world that we will not tolerate crime on our islands. We need to communicate to the people who live here as well as our much-needed visitors who are the largest part of our economy, can live here or visit here and feel some measure of safety and be protected by our local authorities.