In dramatic closing arguments Thursday that lasted almost two hours, prosecution and defense attorneys presented opposing theories of the events that led to the death of law clerk Gabriel Lerner, before handing the case to the jury.
Jurors now have to decide whether to believe the prosecution’s case, which puts the blame on Devon Auriel Frett — based on the words of accomplice John Jared Southwell — or the defense’s, which argues that Frett had no part in the crime and that Southwell is a liar.
Frett , 24, is on trial in Magistrate’s Court in St. Thomas for the Oct. 26, 2008 murder and kidnapping of the 27-year-old Lerner, whose body was found two days later on a lonely dirt path in Bordeaux.
The case against Frett rests largely on the confession of Southwell, 19, who pleaded guilty last September to one count each of second-degree murder and first-degree assault-robbery. He is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence. In exchange for his testimony in the trial, prosecutors agreed to try to reduce his sentence.
Prosecuting attorney Renee Gumbs-Carty walked the jury through the entire three-day sequence of events in her summation Thursday, from the moment Lerner picked up Frett and Southwell while they were hitchhiking, to the moment Frett allegedly put a gun to the back of Lerner’s head and killed him, to the police chase on Crown Mountain Road and the suspects’ apprehension and interrogation.
Assistant attorney Brenda Scales emphasized Southwell’s credibility and Frett’s lack of credibility when making her case, noting that Southwell’s story has not changed in the two years since the crime occurred, while Frett’s has shifted considerably.
"He’s had time for the last two years to sit and think and craft a story that fits the evidence," said Scales on rebuttal. "Who really has the impetus to lie at this point? Nothing Frett has said can be corroborated, but everything Southwell said was corroborated."
On the stand Tuesday Southwell told a story of what occurred Oct. 26, which matched up with the statement he gave police after he was apprehended the evening of Oct. 28. He admitted to being a willing accomplice to the carjacking, robbery and murder of Lerner, but fingered Frett as the triggerman.
Frett’s statment from the same day mirrored Southwell’s statement in all details, except that Frett said Southwell pulled the trigger and killed Lerner. However, in his testimony on Wednesday, Frett disavowed his own police statement and said he had no involvement whatsoever in the murder, carjacking or robbery.
Frett said Southwell was lying to save his own skin, and that VIPD detective Mario Stout "made up" the statement after denying him a lawyer, though he admitted he rode in Lerner’s car with Southwell and used Lerner’s credit card to buy goods at two different stores.
"He conveniently takes himself out of the script when the itinerary leads to Bordeaux," Carty added. "He’s been through the system and knows how to work it. He knows he can ask for a lawyer or waive his rights. Yet he wrote and signed a five-page statement."
Defense attorney Michael Joseph focused on various inconsistencies in the evidence as proof that Frett and Lerner did not cross paths that day in October, and accused Southwell of lying about who pulled the trigger to avoid a much longer sentence.
He repeatedly referred to the 10 minutes of surveillance video from Friendly grocery, in which Frett and Southwell can be seen pulling up to the gas pumps in Lerner’s car and buying goods at the register, but in which Lerner, who was allegedly in the back seat of the car, is never seen on the tape.
"Gabriel was not in that car!" Joseph shouted. "Look at that video and ask yourself if you can say beyond a reasonable doubt that a person could sit in a gas station for five minutes and not give any signal of distress. Lawyers are trained to resist! Look at that video and ask yourself what human being would not have taken the first opportunity to escape."
During testimony earlier in the trial, Lerner’s mother said that her son had been a pacificist, which the prosecution said would explain why he would not have resisted an act of violence committed upon him.
"He was reponding the way his mother taught him, in accordance with his beliefs," Scales said. "He met aggression with peace."
Joseph also questioned the time of Lerner’s death, which the medical examiner estimated to be 48 hours before he was found the night of Tuesday Oct. 28. Joseph said that since 48 hours was only a guess, Lerner could have been killed as early as Friday evening by someone else, especially considering that his apartment was found unlocked when marshals searched it.
"Can maggots grow after 48 hours? Gabriel was probably killed Friday after work," Joseph said. "That is more logical than saying he sat in a car for five minutes without asking for help."
Though he admitted that Frett was not the most likeable person, Joseph’s harshest words were reserved for Southwell, whom he accused of inventing reality.
"I wouldn’t trust him with my wife, and I wouldn’t trust him with my money, but he’s not a murderer," Joseph said of his client. "But Southwell’s a liar! I feel bad for John because he has to live with the fact that he killed a good man."
"Gabriel would not want you to convict the wrong man," he continued, as Lerner’s family audibly sobbed in the gallery.
In addition to a charge of murder in the first degree, Frett also faces three counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of kidnapping, and one count of robbery.
The jury continues its deliberations on Friday.