Judge Acquits Captain in Manslaughter Case

The Ron deLLugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)
The Ron deLLugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)

In the midst of a federal manslaughter trial, a judge called off the proceedings and accepted a motion by defense lawyers to acquit defendant Capt. Richard Smith of manslaughter.

The ruling came on the third day in the trial in St. Thomas District Court, and before jurors hearing the case USA vs. Smith went into deliberation.

District Court Judge Curtis Gomez entered a judgement of acquittal Wednesday afternoon. In doing so, the judge accepted the argument of defense attorney David Cattie, a member of Smith’s legal team.

The decision not to send the case into deliberations came at the end of a Rule 29 hearing. Rule 29 is a common procedure used by defense attorneys at trial after prosecutors have presented their evidence and testimony. If a judge accepts argument by the defense at that time, a trial can be brought to an end.

Lead defense attorney Michael Sheesley said the defense told the court the government failed to prove that a crime had taken place.

“The judge decided there’s not enough evidence to permit the jury to decide that a crime has been committed,” Sheesley said.

U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert declined to comment on the acquittal.

Cattie’s motion, filed Tuesday, said the statute used to charge the defendant applied only to commercial vessels. The 43-foot sailboat, Cimarron, was not operating as a commercial vessel on Oct. 25, 2015, when a crew member jumped overboard after engaging in a violent struggle with Smith, Cattie said.

Smith, a resident of Maine, is owner of the Cimarron and a licensed boat captain. At the time of the incident with crew member David Pontius, Smith was transferring the vessel from Maine to St. John, where he operates a charter service.

The captain was indicted by a grand jury in July 2018 of seaman’s manslaughter. Under federal law, the charge says that officers on board a vessel neglected to take specific actions when someone falls from the vessel into the water.

In his Tuesday motion, Cattie said, ” … although the defendant is a captain, he is the captain of a non-commercial pleasure vessel. Section 1115 only reaches commercial. Accordingly, the defendant cannot be prosecuted under Section 1115 as a captain of a vessel.”

During the three days when federal prosecutors laid out their case, jurors heard testimony from Cimarron crew members Jacob Pepper and Heather Morningstar. Their accounts told how Pontius came aboard during a stop in Beaufort, N.C. to replace a third crew member traveling from Maine.

The defense team, in their motion, also pointed out that Pepper, Morningstar and Pontius were not paid for making the trip. They were, however, given free passage, food and a bunk.

Shortly after the vessel set sail for St. John, fellow crew members said Pontius became seasick. The following day, they said, he recovered enough to eat and to work a shift at the helm.

But for reasons witnesses described but could not explain, Pontius became increasingly confused and agitated. Confusion also lead to aggression and accusations that the captain and crew of the Cimarron were kidnappers.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 2015, Pepper and Morningstar said Pontius confronted Smith while he was at the helm and demanded he steer the boat in the direction of a portal that would take the vessel where it was supposed to go.

Witnesses said the two struggled for control of the wheel, then Pontius lunged at Smith and began choking him.

After Smith fended him off, they said Pontius walked to the rail, stepped onto the vessel’s life lines and stepped out over the water.

A search and rescue expert who testified at trial said at the time, seas were between seven and eight feet and an almost full moon shone overhead.

Pepper told the court he grabbed a spotlight and searched for Pontius but never saw him. He also said Smith used the ship’s marine radio to signal Mayday.

But both Pepper and Morningstar said the captain did not turn the boat around. Morningstar also testified that Smith said at the time, “the threat has left the ship.”