March 1, 2007 — A motion to acquit former Police Detective Joel Dowdye of first- and second-degree murder, weapons and assault charges was shot down Thursday by V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar, who seemed surprised when Dowdye's attorney, Stephen Brusch, said the prosecution did not have "sufficient evidence" to prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt."
"How can you say that?" Hollar asked, after Brusch presented the motion. "You're making conclusions here, counsel; but you have nothing to back it up."
Brusch explained that the first-degree murder charge implies that Dowdye "willfully and intentionally" gunned down 22-year-old Sherett James and injured her companion Daren "Bogle" Stevens at the Bunker Hill Hotel in March 2006. In his opening statement, presented on Tuesday, Brusch initially argued that Dowdye's actions were not "intentional," but a reaction to a "perceived threat."
Over the past few days, testimony given by two of the prosecution's key witnesses has supported Brusch's argument. On Wednesday, Sgt. Milton Petersen, Dowdye's former supervisor, said that Dowdye told him he only opened fire on Stevens after the two were involved in an altercation at the hotel in the early morning hours of March 25, 2006.
According to Petersen, Dowdye told him that he had encountered James at the Greenhouse Bar and Restaurant on St. Thomas approximately six or seven hours before the incident occurred. "At some point during the evening, he said Sherett did come up and have a conversation with him. He said that Sherett said she felt uncomfortable with the gentleman she was with and indicated that she was perhaps with him not out of her own free will," Petersen said.
Police Detective Lionel Bess testified that Dowdye gave a similar statement later that day, after he had surrendered himself to police around 11:40 a.m. — approximately four and a half hours after the shooting occurred.
In his statement, Dowdye said he went to Bunker Hill after receiving an early morning telephone call from James, who sounded "like she was having a problem with the gentleman she was with," Bess explained on Thursday.
"He [Dowdye] said that after he went to the hotel and went upstairs, the door to the hotel room opened and he saw Bogle [Stevens]. Bogle asked Dowdye why he was there and attempted to close the door, but Dowdye put his foot in the door," Bess said.
Dowdye then said he and Stevens got involved in a struggle, during which time shots were fired. "Dowdye said that while he was discharging his firearm, Sherett got in between him and Bogle to prevent them from fighting," Bess said.
Bess added that in his statement Dowdye indicated that he did not, at any point during the altercation, enter the hotel room,.
However, prosecuting attorney Nolan Paige argued on Thursday that the government had presented a "surplus" of evidence to the contrary — including testimony given by expert witness N. Leroy Parker, a crime lab specialist with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
On Wednesday, Parker said he had performed a bloodstain and gunshot analysis of the crime scene after visiting the hotel a few days after the incident occurred. In observing the room, Parker said he noticed bloodstains on the left side of the bed and on the floor, along with a bullet hole in one of the walls.
Parker said the bullet hit the wall at a 65-degree angle, indicating that the shooter had to be inside the room when that particular shot was fired.
Dowdye's account of the incident, as presented by Petersen and Bess, was also refuted by Stevens, who took the stand on Thursday. Dressed in black, Stevens broke into tears while answering questions from the prosecution, saying that he still has "nightmares" about the incident.
Stevens testified he and James were sleeping in the hotel room when he received a phone call from the front desk, indicating he had a visitor. "I opened the door and Dowdye was standing there with his gun pointed at me," Stevens said. "I said, 'Don't do it, don't do it,' but he opened fire."
As a corrections officer, Stevens said he had strapped on his gun before answering the door. "But I didn't have time to use it," he said. "Everything happened so fast."
Stevens added that he fled into the bathroom of the hotel room when he felt a "sting" in his back. "I stayed in the bathroom and played dead," he said. "I heard other explosions from the gun ringing out, then the room just went silent. Dowdye said nothing."
Stevens said that prior to being found by the hotel's owner, he tried to use his own blood to write Dowdye's name on the bathroom floor. "At one point, I felt that I wasn't going to make it," he said. "And there was so much blood, so I tried to write his name on the tiles of the bathroom."
Stevens sustained one gunshot wound to the abdomen, and another to the back — which punctured a lung and left bullet fragments in his chest. According to Dr. Sydney Comissiong, a general surgeon at Schneider Regional Medical Center, the fragments were "too small to remove."
James also sustained two wounds — one to the left cheek and another to the back of the head. According to Dr. Francisco Landron, medical examiner for St. Thomas-St. John, the bullet to the head was responsible for James' death.
Testimony given by Parker also indicates that the shot was fired at a downward angle of 38.5 degrees — indicating that James was lying face-down at the time the bullet entered her skull and became lodged in the brain.
On Thursday, Hollar said that given the evidence, she would be denying Brusch's motion for acquittal.
Hollar said she would also not be supporting Brusch's request to include witness testimony on two previous incidents — one in which Dowdye shot "someone to protect the life of another individual" and another where Dowdye himself "was shot at."
Brusch said that exploring the two events could shed light on why Dowdye "acted the way he did" at the Bunker Hill Hotel.
However, prosecuting attorney Cornelius Williams argued that Brusch's request was a "just a backdoor attempt at an insanity plea."
"What counsel is trying to do is present a diminished-capacity defense, without allowing the people the right to obtain its own psychiatrist or psychologist to delve into the life of Mr. Dowdye," Williams said.
While Hollar said she would allow the defense to call witnesses to attest to events or circumstances related to the March 25 incident, she explained that she could not entertain testimony on the two previous shootings. "You're talking about classic post-traumatic stress syndrome," she said. "Which would have been fine, except you didn't present that argument pursuant to the law."
Taking a different approach, Brusch called a series of witnesses to testify on Dowdye's character, work ethic and moral values. All witnesses — including Dowdye's pastor, former co-workers and friends — described Dowdye as "kind, loving, trusting, hardworking and law-abiding."
While the prosecution contended that Dowdye was often involved in altercations — Paige and Williams described at least five different events where Dowdye allegedly made threats to emergency workers, pushed an elderly woman during Carnival and assaulted a series of other individuals — witnesses stuck to their opinions, calling Dowdye a "good friend and honest person."
Williams said that Dowdye and James were also involved in an incident last January at a local nightclub. At the time, Dowdye, who saw James on a "date with another man" allegedly grabbed her by the throat and "dragged her down the stairs," Williams said.
Witnesses said they could not comment on
the incident, since they were not there and "didn't know all the circumstances."
Brusch will continue to present his case when the trial resumes Friday at 9 a.m.
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