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High Court Rules Minors Accused In Bias Murder Can Be Tried As Adults

Five minors accused of kidnapping and beating a St. Thomas man to death because he was gay will face trial as adults for premeditated murder after the V.I. Supreme Court on Friday rejected three defendants’ appeals of the court orders directing that they be tried as adults.

All five defendants face potential sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Hyde’s unconscious body was found Nov. 24, 2012 in a bathroom stall at Magens Bay Beach. He had been brutally assaulted and sustained severe head trauma. Hyde was transported to the Schneider Regional Medical Center and later transferred to the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for treatment. He died as a result of his injuries on Dec. 17.

Five teen suspects, all younger than 18, were arrested and Family Court Judge Debra Watlington granted a motion in March to have them tried as adults.

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Two of the accused, Dionno Brooks, 16, and N’Kai Colon, 17, both made statements to the police acknowledging all five were present and that some or all of the accused took part in beating Hyde to death the night of Nov. 23, 2012. Both statements also give Hyde’s purported sexual orientation as the only motive for the killing.

According to the statement from Brooks, he, defendant Jelani Gumbs, 15, and two minors referred to in court documents as "J.J.J." and "K.J.F." had a BB gun and discussed robbing someone. Brooks said Colon then suggested "let’s call my boss. Let’s kill him because he’s old, gay and he (is) ready to die." The group then called Hyde and set him up for an ambush, according to Brooks.

According to Colon’s statement to police, Colon and Hyde had a previous sexual relationship and after getting Hyde to drive all of them to Magens Bay, he met with Hyde alone inside the Magens Bay shower, while the rest of the defendants waited outside. According to Colon, Hyde then allegedly tried to "inappropriately touch" him, and Colon began beating Hyde. After Colon attacked Hyde, some, but not all, of the defendants joined in, kicking Hyde and using the BB gun as a club, according to Colon.

Both statements explicitly assert that several or all of the five defendants beat Hyde to death and that all five were aware of the violent assault. Both Colon’s and Brook’s statements assert that Colon initiated the violence against Hyde, striking the first blow. And both statements assert that Colon was motivated by Hyde being gay.

In May, Brooks, Colon and Gumbs appeared at an advise-of-rights-hearing on St. Thomas. The other two suspects, J.J.J. and K.J.F., were not remanded as adults at the time.

Gumbs, J.J.J. and K.J.F. appealed Watlington’s decision to try them as adults. On Friday, the V.I. Supreme Court rejected those appeals as without merit, allowing trial to proceed against all five defendants in V.I. Superior Court as adults.

In three separate opinions written by V.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge, the court rejected outright arguments that the court lacked jurisdiction and that the court could not remand them as adults because prosecutors had not sufficiently proven that they were between the ages of 14 and 18.

Three of the defendants’ mothers refused to give police the ages of their children, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The defendants cited this fact, plus the court’s use of testimony instead of documentation to determine their ages, as grounds for rejecting the court order to try them as adults.

Hodge rejected that argument, saying the burden of proof that the defendants are younger than 14 and so too young to be tried as adults rests with the defendants, who have not presented any evidence or argument at all suggesting they are in fact younger than 14.

More substantively, lawyers for Brooks and Gumbs also objected to them being charged as adults with first-degree murder on the grounds that the V.I. mandatory sentence of life without parole would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama. That decision establishes that minors convicted of homicide cannot be sentenced to life without parole.

The Supreme Court agreed that the law is problematic, but determined it has not yet created a legal issue for the defendants.

"It is clear that it would violate the Eighth Amendment for the trial court to be required by statute to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," Hodge wrote.

"However, this issue is not yet ripe. K.J.F. has not yet been convicted of first degree murder—indeed, he may never be convicted of it. … Furthermore, even if K.J.F. is ultimately convicted and sentenced for first-degree murder, between now and then the Legislature may wisely decide to amend the first degree murder penalty as it relates to persons who committed the offense while under the age of 18, and may make any such amendments effective as to pending cases," he wrote.

The three orders remand the three appellants back to V.I. Superior Court for trial.

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