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Trial Delays: Too Many Murders, Too Few Arrests, Too Long Until Trial- Part 1, The Problem

The R.H. Amphlett Leader Justice Complex, home of the Superior Court on St. Croix. (File photo)
The R.H. Amphlett Leader Justice Complex, home of the Superior Court on St. Croix. (File photo)

Part 1: The Problem

The U.S. Virgin Islands courts and Justice Department need more resources to address a crippling backlog of cases that delays and sometimes denies justice – both for victims and for the accused. These are not great budgetary times. Money is tight. But spending in the right places could reap quick fiscal rewards and make the courts more effective and more just.

About 40 people are murdered every single year in the U.S. Virgin Islands, year-in, year-out. Last year, 44 were murdered. The year before, 39 were murdered.

The average has remained very steady since at least the late 1990s.

In general, about one in three V.I. murders are resolved with an arrest. That means every year, 25 to 30 V.I. murders never result in an arrest.

That’s not to say that many violent criminals get away scot-free. For one, many of those responsible for shootings may be arrested for other crimes, including other shootings and murders. Also, a high proportion of V.I. homicides are retaliations or vigilante violence. Those who live by the gun often die by the gun.

But that is cold comfort for anyone with a loved one shot, stabbed or beaten on the streets of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Nor do vigilantes always get the right man. And the violence breeds new violence; an eye for an eye until everyone is blind.

When there is an arrest, there are often multi-year delays before trial. Like many places, the USVI has struggled for a long time, with limited success, to reduce trial delays.

Long delays are very frustrating all around. Friends and loved ones of victims see arrests, but wait years and years for any action. The police may have difficulty prosecuting cases if witnesses vanish – or worse, get killed. Memories fade. And not everyone accused is guilty. Imagine having a murder charge hanging over your head for years on end, probably while sitting in jail the entire time.

The congregants of Calvary Baptist Church on St. Croix have been waiting for years to see justice for one of their own.

Augustus Bannis, 73, was out collecting almonds near D. Hamilton Jackson Park on August 5, 2015 when he was set upon by several young men. They beat him into a coma and stole his car. Bannis never regained consciousness and died in October of that year.

Four men were arrested and charged in the case: two adults, Jahmal Rivera, 33, Dumaray Isles, age 27, and Enock Cole and Avondale George, who were minors at the time of the crime but are adults now.

That was four years ago. In October of 2018, Judge Harold Willock ruled the delays were not outside the legal requirements for a speedy trial.

In May of this year, all four had pre-trial conferences before Willocks and at least two may be headed to trial soon.

According to Calvary Baptist Church congregants, Bannis’ widow has health challenges, and it is extremely expensive for family members to travel to the territory, only to cancel when trial is delayed.

Sometimes the consequences of delay are much worse. If the evidence or witnesses cannot be located, or if memories become unreliable under questioning, the case may be difficult to prosecute and charges may be dropped altogether.

Rasenjoni Williams was arrested in March of 2009 and charged with first degree murder of  Steve Williams, 33, of Sion Farm. Williams was 20 at the time.

A year and a half later, he was released pending trial and initially placed under house arrest. Then he was released from house arrest due to the hardship that his inability to work was putting on his sister.

Still awaiting trial, Williams got married and had a baby on the way when, three years after his arrest and days after being released from house arrest pending trial, he and his wife were gunned down while relaxing at the beach.

No One is to Blame But We Have to Do Better

There is no value in pointing fingers. Putting more resources into the courts and the Department of Justice would probably help. But, to be fair, funding has always been tight. Should the government cut funds to the underfunded schools? Or make cuts to the underfunded hospitals? There are no easy choices here.

At the same time, it is important to keep trying; to keep pressure on to find new ways to make the processes work better and faster. And it is important to not become jaded. We need to remember that behind these chronic problems and dire statistics we read about in the paper, behind the police reports and court reports, are real people, facing real tragedies and real suffering.

What are the many other jurisdictions with case backlogs doing? What do experts suggest? Mostly, they seem to recommend spending money, which is in short supply. But there are glimmers of hope.

Next: Part 2: Solutions

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