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Ward Pleas to Voluntary Manslaughter

As part of a plea deal Wednesday, accused murderer Jahlil Ward, 24 of Gifft Hill, entered a plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 2007 beating and stabbing death of James "Jamie" Cockayne on St. John, taking second degree murder off the table and avoiding a third trial. Under the plea agreement, Ward faces 10 years in prison for the voluntary manslaughter charge.

"I plead guilty, but maintain my innocence," Ward said, entering what is known as an "Alford plea," named for a U.S. Supreme Court case that helped define how and when a person may plead guilty, but deny committing the crime.

Ward has been tried and convicted twice for killing Cockayne. At his first trial in 2008, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder, third-degree assault, and using a dangerous weapon.

At the time, St. John residents Anselmo Boston and Kamal Thomas were also found guilty of assaulting Cockayne before he was murdered, and sentenced to prison for 12 1/2 years.

Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar set aside Ward’s convictions and granted him a new trial in 2009 after his attorney Michael Quinn filed a motion saying the prosecution had withheld evidence of a witness claiming Thomas confessed to the killing.

Thomas’s and Boston’s convictions were set aside after it came to light the victim’s family had paid several thousand dollars to two witnesses, ostensibly for traveling and other expenses. On retrial, the two were again convicted and sentenced to 48 months in prison, with 18 months suspended, for third-degree assault and 10 years with two years suspended for using a dangerous weapon during a third-degree assault.

At Ward’s second trial, in late 2009, he was acquitted of first-degree murder and convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree assault, and using a deadly weapon while committing assault.

The court set aside the convictions over concerns about prosecutors withholding information about some of its witnesses, such as that one was on probation for a violent crime when the Cockayne murder occurred The prosecution appealed the decision, the V.I. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the prosecution in September, remanding the case for a new trial.

Explaining the consequences of the plea to Ward, Hollar said if Ward chose to go to trial, he could not be charged with first degree murder because of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on trying someone for the same crime after they have been acquitted- often called "double jeopardy."

Had Ward chosen to go to trial, he could have faced a minimum of five years and a maximum of life in prison, if convicted of second-degree murder, Hollar said. If he were convicted of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter, he would have faced up to 10 years in prison. If he were acquitted of manslaughter and murder, he could have faced five years for third degree assault, plus a mandatory seven years for the gun charge, she said.

Pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter would result in the other charges being dropped and Ward would face up to 10 years in prison, Hollar told the defendant.

Sentencing is scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 4 in V.I. Superior Court on St. Thomas.

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