Justin Matthews, charged with first-degree murder in the September shooting death of Keoner Baron, 20, in the Home Depot parking lot on St. Thomas, wants statements he purportedly made to police suppressed, alleging in a motion filed with the V.I. Superior Court that officers threatened to hurt his grandmother if he did not confess to the crime.
Matthews, 23 at the time of his arrest, also is seeking to have his trial held outside of the territory, claiming pre-trial publicity in the case has made a fair hearing impossible, according to a separate motion filed with the court.
The motion to suppress his statements, filed Friday, alleges that when Matthews was brought to the Alexander Farrelly Justice Complex on St. Thomas for questioning on Sept. 5, the day after the shooting, “Officer Dwight Griffith started harassing Mr. Matthews and told Mr. Matthews that ‘we could hurt your grandmother if you don’t give us a confession because we know it is you who did it.'”
Matthews, who at the time lived with his grandmother, gave police the same statement as the day of the shooting, when he also was questioned as a “person of interest,” then asked to speak with an attorney, and the interview was terminated according to the motion.
“At the time, officers began harassing and pressuring the Defendant. Before turning back on the recording device, Detective Griffith again told Mr. Matthews, ‘if you don’t give us a confession, we’ll hurt your grandmother. There are people out there that hate you right now, and we could release information as to where you live and let them take the rest from there.’ Detective James nodded his head in the affirmative. Intimidated and frightened, Defendant then apparently gave a statement after the detectives turned on the recording device,” the motion states.
“Defendant contends that his statement was not voluntarily given and that the police threatened him and his grandmother with grave bodily harm if he did not confess,” the motion states.
Even if Matthews was read his Miranda rights prior to giving his statement, “his statement was coerced,” the motion states. “The officers violated Defendant’s rights to remain silent by their continued interrogation and harassment and threatening statements towards his elderly grandmother.”
Matthews, charged with 11 counts, including first-degree murder, has pleaded not guilty. He is being held on $200,000 cash bail and is represented by Territorial Public Defender Julie S. Todman. Currently, jury selection is set to begin at 9 a.m. on Jan. 18 in Courtroom 3 of the Alexander Farrelly Justice Complex on St. Thomas.
The request for a change of venue is to ensure that Matthews “receives a fair trial before a jury untainted by pre-trial publicity,” according to the motion filed Thursday. “Defendant contends that the information in the media (television, radio, newspaper, WhatsApp, and internet) surrounding this case has caused the Territorial community to become deeply hostile, indignant, and repulsed by the Defendant,” it says.
“Defendant has been depicted as a cold-hearted vicious murderer, who could not accept rejection by the Victim. The pre-trial publicity in the case of the alleged murder has been pervasive, intense, and inflammatory as to produce a trial atmosphere utterly corrupted by personal opinion, rumors, and innuendos,” the motion states.
Additionally, pictures of Baron’s body were widely circulated via WhatsApp, to the point that V.I. Police Commissioner Ray Martinez called on the community to stop sharing the images and videos, as reported by the media at the time, the motion states.
Citing case law, including Supreme Court decisions, the motion states that the “Court can motion for a change of venue where the news articles expressly or impliedly state that the defendant was guilty, and the articles were inflammatory that a person who read them could not retain an open mind regarding the guilt or innocence of the defendant and where the defendant has been put in a negative light on basis of his past life or events intrinsic to the crime charged.”
According to the motion, “the self-evident conclusion is that the Virgin Islands Territory has been so saturated with the misleading facts, misstatement, mischaracterization, rumors, and innuendos underlying this case that it is impossible for Defendant to receive a fair trial before a jury composed of impartial persons who learn of the case only through the evidence properly admitted during trial.”
The court should grant Matthews’ motion for a change of venue, it concludes.
The court had not ruled on the motions as of Tuesday.