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Prosecutor Released After Getting Jailed for Being 10 Minutes Late

Feb. 3, 2009 — An assistant attorney general got out of jail Tuesday after V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall had him arrested for appearing 10 minutes late to a court hearing.
The Bureau of Corrections released Jesse Bethel from custody Tuesday morning after his arrest Monday on a bench warrant issued by the judge. Kendall set Bethel's bail at $10,000.
Bethel spent the night in the custody of the BOC, but was held separately from the general population, according to Sara Lezema, public relations officer for the Department of Justice.
The assistant attorney general was scheduled to appear in court Monday for a change-of-plea hearing for co-defendants Basheem Ford and Jermaine Paris. They are accused in the murder of veteran V.I. Police Officer Ariel A. Frett, who was gunned down Feb. 8, 2007, after he intervened in an altercation in the Hospital Ground area. Frett died later that day from multiple gunshot wounds. (See "Accused Cop Killer Ford Charged as Adult.")
Bethel appeared Tuesday before Kendall at a show-cause hearing, where Kendall excused him from paying the $10,000 bail, and deferred making a decision on whether to hold the prosecutor in contempt of court.
In a news release Tuesday, Attorney General Vincent Frazer said he was pleased that Kendall had accepted Bethel's apology to the court and allowed him to be released from jail without paying a high bail.
"As an officer of the court, I respect the authority of the judiciary and expect my attorneys general to do the same," Frazer said. "I regret if any comments I made regrading the matter may have offended or appeared disparaging to the court."
In a published report Tuesday, Frazer was quoted as saying he considered Kendall's action "a very far-reaching abuse of judicial discretion."
Speaking Tuesday evening, Bethel explained the events leading to Monday's court hearing. At a pre-trial conference Friday, he said, the defense attorneys — Steven Hogroian, representing Ford, and Samuel Joseph, representing Paris — claimed Bethel offered them a plea of involuntary manslaughter. The attorneys presented a tape recording of a conversation which they said documented the offer.
Bethel acknowledged he said "involuntary" in the conversation. But, he said, "I meant to say voluntary." He continued, "If I misspoke or made a mistake, that's not the end of it. There is a greater requirement of fact. This is not a word game. We need to establish on record what the facts of the case will support."
An offer of involuntary manslaughter would not be consistent with the case Bethel has been presenting, he said.
According to Bethel and Lezama, Kendall said in court Tuesday he had every reason to believe Bethel would not appear in court based on Bethel's conduct Friday.
"Bethel willfully and deliberately misrepresented his offer to the court, saying, 'There was no question in his voice that he intended to make the offer of involuntary manslaughter,'" Kendall said.
The defense is "not entitled to a plea of involuntary manslaughter," Bethel said. He continued, "They called after I had set a deadline on contract principles. If you don't do it by that date — Jan. 26 in this case — you have no right to enforce the offer."
Court pleas "should be in writing, signed by all attorneys involved," Bethel said.
"It's called a meeting of the minds," the assistant attorney general said. "In contract principle a meeting of the minds is the same thing agreed on by all parties. It is the policy of the Department of Justice that plea deals are offered in writing for the protection of the defendants and the government."
Bethel defended his stance in the face of complaints from the defense attorneys.
"I stand by my legal position," Bethel said. "It's not a personal thing. The Virgin Islands government has the responsibility to see that justice is done, and we give a plea consistent with the facts of the case. They are not entitled to a plea of involuntary. There is no involuntary count in the 22 counts that have to be dealt with, until a written agreement."
Bethel was late getting to court because he was filing a notice of appeal to bring along, he said.
"I let the court know in advance that I was doing the paperwork," Bethel said. "I had another attorney, Michael Phelan, an appeals attorney, inform the court I would be late, but Judge Kendall wouldn't accept his appearance. I thought I had made it clear on Friday that the government is not offering a plea of involuntary manslaughter, and in order to avoid putting that on record, I was going to offer a notice of appeal."
Kendall said Tuesday he found precedent in the case of the V.I. Government vs. Scotland and Springette, where a plea bargain was refused and the defendants had to go to trial.
Bethel said Kendall gave the attorneys until Friday to offer briefs on the case and show him why the precedent would not apply to the plea-bargain issue in the case of Ford and Paris. Based on the briefs, Kendall said, he would either bind the government to the oral plea offer or the case would go to trial.
Bethel declined to comment on Kendall's actions.
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