March 12, 2009 — The fate of Basheem Ford and Jermaine Paris — the brothers charged with gunning down veteran Police Officer Ariel Frett a little over two years ago — may now rest in the hands of the V.I. Supreme Court.
This week the court granted a motion to stay a pre-trial hearing at which the brothers were expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. The motion, filed by Assistant Attorney General Jesse Bethel, comes on the heels of a ruling by V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall ordering the government to execute the pleas, even though Bethel and the government have contended that an offer for involuntary manslaughter was never on the table.
The controversy over the plea agreement hinges on a Jan. 30 hearing held in Kendall's chambers in which defense attorneys Steven Hogroian, representing Ford, and Samuel Joseph, representing Paris, claimed Bethel had offered their clients a plea of involuntary manslaughter. At the time, the attorneys played a tape recording of a conversation which they said documented the offer.
Bethel has said that he "misspoke" during the conversation and meant to make an offer for voluntary manslaughter. An involuntary manslaughter plea would be inconsistent with the case that the government has been presenting, he said. But Kendall contended the involuntary manslaughter offer was valid, and scheduled a change of plea hearing for early February, which came to a halt after Bethel showed up late and Kendall issued a bench warrant for his arrest.
Bethel was released the next day, appearing before Kendall at a show-cause hearing at which the judge excused him from paying $10,000 bail and deferred making a decision on whether to hold the prosecutor in contempt of court. (See: "Prosecutor Released After Getting Jailed for Being 10 Minutes Late.")
Meanwhile, Kendall said he had found precedent in the case of the V.I. Government vs. Scotland and Springette, in which a plea bargain was refused and the defendants had to go to trial. Kendall gave the attorneys some time to offer briefs on the case and show him why the precedent would not apply to the plea-bargain issue in the case of Ford and Paris. Based on the briefs, Kendall said he would either bind the government to the oral plea offer or the case would go to trial.
In a Feb. 20 opinion, Kendall stood his ground, saying, among other things, that the media publicity generated by the government's "conduct" in the case would make it difficult for Ford and Paris to get a fair trial.
"The court agrees that the alternate remedy of a fair jury trial is not available to the defendants, thus requiring the court to enforce the original agreement," Kendall wrote, adding that various media outlets carried stories of the brothers' "desire" to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
The attorney general filed a motion last Friday asking for the Supreme Court to vacate Kendall's orders, arguing among other things that Kendall repeatedly denied Bethel's attempts to make a record of appeal during the Jan. 30 in-chamber hearing, and that it was unlawful for the judge to force the government to "consummate" a plea deal "for which there is no factual basis."
Kendall, Ford and Paris have less than two weeks to file their responses for Bethel's motion to stay the pre-trial hearing, and about a month to respond to the government's latest challenge to overturn Kendall's ruling.
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