Feb. 27, 2007 — The trial of former Police Detective Joel Dowdye opened Tuesday with a series of graphic statements from prosecuting attorneys vividly depicting the final hours of 22-year old Sherett James, who was allegedly gunned down by Dowdye at the Bunker Hill Hotel on St. Thomas in March 2006.
James' companion, local radio personality Daren "Bogle" Stevens, was also injured during the incident, sustaining gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen. According to V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda J. Hollar, who is presiding over the trial, Dowdye has been charged with murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, attempted murder in the first degree and first-degree assault for his alleged role in both shootings.
While prosecuting attorney Nolan Paige noted that statements taken from Stevens at the crime scene identify Dowdye as the perpetrator, Dowdye has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Dressed in a crisp black suit, Dowdye seemed to be in good spirits Tuesday, often laughing and greeting acquaintances gathered in the courtroom. James' family, however, appeared somber, often crying at testimony provided by a series of 10 witnesses, which included James' mother, Caroley Brunn, and members of the V.I. Police Department.
Members of the jury were also seen wiping their eyes as Brunn, who was dressed in black, gave a tearful account of where she was at the time of the murder. "I will never, ever forget that day," Brunn whispered after taking the stand.
Jurors also grimaced as pictures of James' dead body were passed around as evidence. According to Officer Maha Hamden, who was charged with "bagging and tagging" evidence at the crime scene, one of the pictures showed James lying "face down in a pool of blood."
In his opening statement, prosecuting attorney Nolan Paige described James' death as an "execution" and said that Dowdye, as the perpetrator, moved with "premeditation, calculation and the almost tactical precision of someone who knows how to handle a gun."
Paige added that Dowdye, in a phone call with his ex-wife, also admitted that he had "killed two people."
However, Dowdye's defense attorney, Stephen Brusch, argued that Dowdye's actions were not intentional, but a reaction to a "perceived threat."
"The evidence shows that he [Dowdye] was under extreme stress, that what happened was not intentional murder," Brusch said. "It was a threat, a reaction to a threat that Officer Dowdye perceived. It doesn't have to be an actual threat, but what he believed to be a threat."
Brusch described Dowdye as one of the "best detectives" on the force and added that citizens "don't know the stresses and pressure of an officer," who is on the job 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
He also told the jury that if the government is unable to prove its case, then a guilty verdict cannot be rendered for the first-degree murder charge, which implies that the murder was committed willfully, deliberately and with malice.
The Prosecution's Case
In his opening argument, Paige chronicled the murder in detail, explaining that Dowdye visited the hotel room in which Stevens and James were staying on the morning of March 25, 2007. He said that Stevens, after being told by the front desk that he had a visitor, opened the door to the room around 8 a.m. to find Dowyde "pointing a gun at him."
Paige said that Stevens, as a corrections officer, did strap on his gun before answering the door. "However, he did not have time to use it," he explained. "He did not have time to say much else other than, 'Don't do it, don't do it,' to Officer Dowdye before he felt the first shot to his stomach."
After Stevens was shot a second time, Dowdye then "turned his attention to Sherett," Paige said. "The evidence shows that she was hiding under the blanket on the bed, curled in the fetal position and holding on tightly to the cover with one hand. A bullet rips right through the blanket and into that hand, and goes through her face."
Paige said that Dowdye, after shooting James a second time in the head, fleed the scene in a car, and was eventually picked up by police at Peterborg Point with "his gun in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other."
A series of witnesses subsequently called by the prosecution corroborated several of Paige's statements. This included several police officers and two emergency medical technicians who were called to the scene after receiving reports of a shooting incident in the Bunker Hill area. These individuals testified that Stevens, while being treated for his injuries, identified Dowdye as the shooter.
Lavelle Campbell, a resident living in the Garden Street area on St. Thomas, said he was on his porch at the time the incident occurred. Campbell said he heard approximately five gunshots and saw an individual dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans emerge from the entrance of the hotel, get into a vehicle and drive away from the scene.
Police Detective Adora John said that Stevens later described Dowdye as dressed in a white T-shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers when he visited the hotel in March 2006.
Hamden and John also said that five shell casings were taken from the scene, along with 2 bullet fragments. When asked by prosecuting attorney Cornelius Williams where the bullets came from, Hamden said that a ballistics report shows the shots were fired from a 40-caliber semi-automatic handgun — the same type of weapon issued to police.
The Defense's Case
Brusch had few questions Monday for a majority of the witnesses called by the prosecution. However, he did ask several of the officers whether Steven's gun, also entered into evidence, was in its holster when emergency workers responded to the scene.
Police Detective Cleopatra Brooks said that when she arrived at Bunker Hill hotel, Stevens was in the process of being examined by two emergency medical technicians. "I did see a gun [on Stevens] and it was holstered," she said.
Throughout the day, however, Brusch said that by the time forensics officers, charged with preserving the crime scene, arrived at Bunker Hill Hotel, several items in the room had been disturbed.
Brusch also frequently objected when prosecutors moved to have various items entered into evidence. While Hollar generally denied Brusch's requests, she did not allow a critical recording — a tape of a 911 call placed by Bunker Hill Hotel owner Angela Rawlings after the shooting occurred — to be put on record.
Brusch said the tape should not be admitted as evidence since Rawlings — after listening to the tape during a brief recess — said that she could accurately recreate what she said to the 911 dispatcher when the initial call was made.
Later in the trial, Brusch also questioned what pieces of evidence were sent to the mainland for further analysis. During a redirect from Williams, Hamden revealed that she did not have the final say on what items were "sent away for testing."
Despite the fact that her signature does appear on a letter sent to the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Hamden said the final decision was made by her supervisor, Police Detective Anthony Hunt.
The prosecution will continue to present its case on Wednesday, when the trial resumes at 9 a.m.
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