Justin Matthews’ bid to have his murder trial moved out of the territory and his confession to the police suppressed is ludicrous, the Attorney General’s Office argued in its response filed in V.I. Superior Court.
Matthews is charged with first-degree murder and 10 other counts in the Sept. 4 shooting death of Keoner Baron, 20, as she waited for a ride outside Home Depot on St. Thomas following her shift at the store. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held on $200,000 cash bail.
Territorial Public Defender Julie S. Todman, last week filed a motion to suppress Matthews’ statement to police, alleging that his confession was coerced by officers who threatened to hurt his elderly grandmother if he did not admit to the crime. A second motion requests a change of venue due to widespread media coverage of the case.
The Attorney General’s Office opposed both requests in its response filed Wednesday.
Regarding Matthews’ purported confession, there is no evidence that it was coerced or obtained improperly, the government said.
“The statement in question was recorded. It is untrue that any law enforcement officers ever threatened to harm his grandmother. The tactics used in this interrogation were clearly proper. To say that any other tactics were used is untrue. Nowhere in the record or discovery provided can show that the defendant was coerced. Law enforcement did not harass or threaten the defendant with statements that harm would come to his grandmother,” the Attorney General’s Office stated in its motion.
“The evidence shows that he was advised [of] his rights thoroughly and asked throughout the interview if he was comfortable giving a statement,” it said.
Matthews did request counsel during the questioning, so police stopped their interrogation, but then he initiated further discussions, the motion states, citing case law where confessions obtained under such circumstances have been deemed admissible in court.
“In the recording, police make sure to ask the defendant if this is being done on his own free will, which he responds in the affirmative. The defendant agrees that he came back to the police and asked to give a further statement. The defendant agrees that no one threatened him or made him give a further statement. When defendant begins giving his confession, no questions are asked by law enforcement. The defendant begins his confession to the murder of Keoner Baron on his own,” according to the motion.
As for publicity surrounding the case necessitating a change of venue out of the territory, the government called that a “ludicrous” contention that also would place an undue burden on the prosecution, as well as the 30 to 40 witnesses it plans to call, most of whom live and work on St. Thomas, it said.
Moreover, public attention to the case “is not the fault of media coverage, but instead are just the facts of the case. The fact that this is a heinous crime has nothing to do with the media coverage, but all to do with the defendant’s actions. Whether a juror hears these facts through media coverage or through testimony and evidence at trial, the expected emotional reaction” is because “the evidence and events that occurred are unthinkable,” the motion states.
The fact that photos of the victim were circulated on social media is “only the fault of the defendant who killed Keoner Baron in broad daylight and left her there to die in a very public area. The facts of the case are why a jury will find the defendant guilty, not the media coverage that preceded it,” according to the motion.
“To give a change of venue to every Defendant that has committed a heinous crime that invokes the emotions of the public would be ludicrous,” it states.
Rather, the court relies on voir dire — the process of examining potential jurors to determine whether they are fit to serve and to root out any potential biases, the motion states.
“It has been shown time and time again that voir dire works to make sure a defendant is given a fair trial,” according to the motion. “A presumption of prejudice is warranted only in extreme cases. There hasn’t been selection to even know how likely jurors are to be tainted. Even if they have heard of the case before, that does not mean a person cannot be fair and impartial. The questions asked of the potential jurors specifically address that issue.”
As well, the motion states, the articles cited by Matthews’ attorney in her motion for a change of venue “are not sensational, inflammatory, or slanted toward conviction. The articles give information on what occurred in St. Thomas on September 4, 2021.”
The court had not ruled on the motions as of Friday.
Currently, jury selection in the case is set to begin at 9 a.m. on Jan. 18 in Courtroom 3 of the Alexander Farrelly Justice Complex on St. Thomas.