In a short statement to the territory’s news media Friday, Gov. Kenneth Mapp announced he is removing V.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Dunston from the position of presiding judge, replacing him with Judge Harold Willocks, effective June 26.
Dunston will still be a judge but no longer the administrative executive of the V.I. Superior Court.
Mapp cited V.I. law as his legal authority for the action. The laws explicitly states the governor selects the Superior Court presiding judge. He also thanked Dunston for his service in that role and said Dunston "will retain his tenure until September 26, 2019," when his current term of office expires.
The governor cited concerns with the slow pace and large volume of cases lingering on the court docket; allegations that some judges have not showing up to work and the failure, to date, of the court to digitize its case system.
"Earlier this year I complained and acknowledged to the people of the Virgin Islands that in our efforts to fight crime, one of our difficulties were the inability of the court to move its docket. I noted at the time that there were judges that were even failing to report to work," Mapp said. There are "more than 175 detainees that we are housing at Golden Grove Correctional Facility from over three years waiting for trials for charges that are not even as egregious for (sic) murder."
The delays on the court docket have been a serious concern for a number of years. Because of the constitutional requirement for a speedy trial, sometimes individuals charged with first degree murder are let out of prison while awaiting trial. For example, Rasenjoni Williams was held more than a year, then placed on house arrest, then simply released to allow him to seek work while awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges when he and his pregnant 18-year-old wife, Amaria Remie Williams, were gunned down in broad daylight at the beach in 2012. (See Related Links below)
In 2013, then-Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue issued an order establishing “time standards” for the disposition of cases in the Superior Court, based on national time standard models established by the American Bar Association and the National Center for the State Courts. The standards recommended misdemeanors should take no more than 120 days. For relatively minor felony charges, with potential sentences of one to five years, the time standard for disposition is 180 days. For felonies meriting five to 20-year sentences, 270 days, and for the most serious felonies, 365 days, or one year.
Delays remain a problem however. In budget testimony last year, Dunston told senators the courts were woefully underfunded and asked for a large budgetary increase, which did not occur. Years of budget reductions "inhibit the court from functioning in the most effective and efficient manner," Dunston said last year.
Mapp said Friday he is submitting legislation to establish similar time standards..
"The government of the Virgin Islands is spending huge monetary resources to house, to feed and to provide medical service for detainees while they await trial. This cannot continue," Mapp said.
"My concern goes beyond that of the criminal docket. In civil society in the conduct of our economy, many cases go unheard and unscheduled having to do with conflicts of contract and business. This affects the manner in which the economy operates in the territory," he said.
Mapp also said he was upset that the court still did not have a computerized records system, saying the court "lost a number of millions of dollars in its attempt to be computerized."
He said Superior Court could have taken advantage of low-cost, existing systems, but chose not to.
"The District Court of the Virgin Islands and the federal judiciary has offered the Virgin Islands Superior Court the ability to have access and to use the software that the federal judiciary uses across the nation, for little or no fee whatsoever. The court has yet to take any opportunity to utilize the grant of benefits that are offered by the federal judiciary and the Superior Court remains lethargic, nonfunctioning and simply, in 2016, a paper operation," Mapp said.
Dunston outlined problems with the contractor during 2014 and 2015 budget hearings, saying Superior Court online case management system went live in late 2013. "Unfortunately, difficulties developed in the conversion of the data from our former system, eNACT, and its integration into the new system. Problems also persisted with the reporting function of the AmCad product, delaying the implementation of the electronic filing component," Dunston told senators in 2015. He said the court needed more funding for the system.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge has suggested the two courts could use the same platform, but Dunston said the Superior Court has a larger caseload and different needs and needs a separate system.
Mapp said Friday he supports many parts of a bill before the Legislature to unify the administration of the Supreme Court and Superior Court, including a provision that would rotate the office of presiding judge by seniority.
"Had that provision been in effect today a change in the presiding judge of the Superior Court would not need or require any action on my part," Mapp said.
In closing, Mapp said it "is important that a significant provision in the criminal justice process, that of the courts of the Virgin Islands, be brought up to date, modernized, and be able to respond to our needs within this community."
He thanked Dunston for his service and said he wishes Willocks, and members of the court well. Before the end of the statement, Mapp asked if there were any questions, and said since there were none, the conference was over. Most reporters attended the news conference by a conferenced telephone call. The call was set to "listen only" so no questions were possible.
Efforts to reach Dunston for comment were not successful as of 4 p.m. Friday.