The retrial of Rodney Miller Sr., Amos Carty Jr. and Peter Najawicz for allegedly defrauding Schneider Regional Medical Center of millions of dollars, scheduled to begin Thursday, hit a bump Wednesday when the V.I. Supreme Court stayed proceedings against Najawicz until it rules on his double-jeopardy claim.
The trio has been charged with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy for purportedly helping one another defraud the hospital of millions of dollars by, among other things, awarding each other lavish pay and benefits packages without the approval of the hospital’s governing board.
When they were initially tried in May and June of 2011, the government contended that, while the official government salaries for the group ranged from $150,000 to $80,000, the trio was able to pull in much more and used their top positions to siphon large sums of money from the hospital’s accounts to their own personal accounts.
Prosecutors alleged Miller racked up almost $3.8 million by the end of his five years at the hospital, while Carty and Najawicz, who are accused of approving and making the payments, regularly received thousands more than the $80,000 salaries listed in their government payroll documents.
The core of the case were two 2005 employment agreements for Miller – one that reflected the $150,000 salary listed on his Notice of Personal Action, which reflect what an employees’ position is and how much they are paid, and another that contained hundreds of thousands more in extra benefits that prosecutors argued Carty added without informing the hospital board.
Jurors deliberated for nearly a week after the trial and twice sent notes to V.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Dunston saying they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the 44 charges facing the three men. Dunston declared a mistrial June 24, 2011.
In the intervening year, Najawicz filed a motion in Superior Court for a judgment of acquittal, on the grounds of double jeopardy – the provision in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution preventing a person from being tried twice for the same crime.
When a mistrial is made necessary by a deadlocked jury or other insoluble barrier to a valid verdict, it does not prevent a retrial, because the first trial is essentially wiped away. But Najawicz’s attorneys argued the mistrial was not "manifestly necessary," the court-established legal threshold for whether a new trial constitutes double jeopardy.
In September, Dunston denied Najawicz’s motion.
"Given that there was manifest necessity to declare a mistrial, defendant may be retried without violating the double jeopardy clause," Dunston wrote in his opinion.
Najawicz appealed Dunston’s ruling to the V.I. Supreme Court Oct. 6.
Jury selection began Tuesday and the trial was to begin this week.
On Wednesday, Najawicz petitioned the Supreme Court for an emergency "writ of prohibition," directing Superior Court not to proceed against him until the Supreme Court ruled on his appeal.
Late Wednesday evening, the Supreme Court issued an order staying proceedings against Najawicz.
The unsigned opinion, written in the name of Justices Rhys Hodge, Maria Cabret and Ive Arlington – the entire court – concludes Najawicz had no other legal venue for redress, and that he was entitled to the stay.
The court agreed with Najawicz’s attorneys that a defendant who was forced to take on the expense and hardship of a second trial while awaiting a ruling on whether that second trial was permissible would suffer irreparable harm.
"A defendant who wishes to appeal a pre-trial ruling denying a double jeopardy claim is not only permitted to prosecute an immediate appeal but is entitled to a stay of all further proceedings in the trial court unless the double jeopardy claim is frivolous," the justices wrote. "(W)e simply cannot conclude that Najawicz’s motion was frivolous," they concluded.
The order says the justices "recognize" that this forces Superior Court to either proceed against the other two defendants, or continue the trial to another date and that this will waste judicial resources. But the justices conclude that is Dunston’s responsibility because he did not rule on Najawicz’s July 2011 motion for dismissal until Sept. 7, 2012, not long before jury selection was to begin.
The Supreme Court denied without prejudice Wednesday a motion for an emergency stay from Miller. Miller asked for the stay while the Supreme Court considers his appeal of the Superior Court’s denial of his request court appointed counsel.
Miller argued he has been unable to secure employment since the first trial, partly because the court ordered that he remain in the territory, and cannot afford representation.
The Supreme Court declined the motion partly on the grounds that Miller’s filings indicate the Superior Court had not issued a final ruling on Miller’s request and if the issue became a problem, it could be addressed on appeal, among other legal reasons.