The trial of a British Virgin Islands man caught by a Customs patrol boat after a high-speed chase in Coral Bay, St. John, yielded two guilty verdicts. But the defendant in the case was cleared of the more serious charge of trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States.
Defendant Buney Chinnery and six others were taken into custody on the night of Oct. 31. Federal agents who were on board the Customs patrol boat that chased and stopped defendant Chinnery testified during the trial.
The trial began with jury selection on Feb. 21 and lasted two-and-a-half days. Customs Officer Eric Viergutz gave a detailed account of the Oct. 31 incident. Some of the passengers who made the trip from Tortola with Chinnery testified as well, including a Haitian immigrant who identified himself and Chinney from photos taken by the arresting officers.
Prosecutor Natasha Baker asked Viergutz why the patrol boat targeted the vessel that led to the arrest. The officer said the vessel was seen operating after dark without navigation lights. During the officer’s testimony, Baker played a digital recording taken by the patrol officers showing their attempts to order the vessel they spotted to stop.
Those attempts included patrol officers turning on the flashing blue lights mounted on their boat. Baker asked what the vessel operator — identified in photos as Chinnery — did when he saw the lights.
Viergutz said the boat captain turned his face away from the console of his boat and made eye contact with one of the officers. Then he moved his hand towards the throttle and took a sharp turn away from the patrol boat.
One of the passengers who testified at trial described the journey that led to his trip from Tortola to the United States, with Chinnery driving the vessel. Witness Willy Joseph said he left his home in Haiti and made his way to neighboring Dominican Republic, where he stayed for a while. In late October, he boarded a flight from the Dominican Republic to Tortola. Two days later, he boarded an empty van that made several stops, picking up passengers. The van came to a stop near a shoreline area, and the passengers got out.
Then, Joseph said, they met a man who led them to a motorboat. The witness identified that man as Chinnery after being shown a series of photos displayed to the jury.
Chief District Court Judge Robert Molloy turned the case over for deliberation on Friday. Jurors delivered their verdict later that day. Chinnery was convicted of failure to heave to, a maritime offense that makes it a crime to disobey a lawful order to stop a vessel.
He was also found guilty of making a false statement to a representative of the U.S. government. One witness appearing at trial said Chinnery misspelled his name when asked to identify himself. The witness also told the court the defendant claimed to be from St. John and was helping stranded boaters at the time they were captured.
But in the Friday verdict, jurors found the defendant not guilty of attempting to bring illegal immigrants into the United States on three separate counts.
The maximum penalty for making false statements is five years in prison. Chinnery also faces the possibility of paying a fine and serving up to five years in prison for failing to heave to when he is sentenced.