Jahlil Ward’s Murder Conviction Contested; Assault Convictions of Thomas and Boston Reduced
By Joseph Tsidulko – ST. THOMAS — Judge Brenda Hollar postponed sentencing Friday for the three St. John men convicted in connection with Jamie Cockayne’s slaying in Cruz Bay and instead heard arguments from defense attorneys seeking to mitigate a V.I. Superior Court jury’s verdict in the high-profile murder case.
Hollar withheld ruling on a bevy of post-trial motions, but did make the decision to reduce a single felony assault count against Kamal Thomas, 19, and another against Anselmo Boston, 32, to the misdemeanor crime of simple assault. The judge dismissed corresponding charges of using wooden two-by-fours as deadly weapons during those assaults.
The judge did not make any immediate rulings in regard to 20-year-old Jahlil Ward, the only defendant convicted of the most serious crime of first-degree murder who now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors argued at last month’s trial that Ward fatally stabbed Cockayne eight times just after midnight on June 19, 2007, about a half-hour after the Pennsylvania man got into an altercation with Boston and Thomas inside Cruz Bay’s Front Yard bar.
Largely due to a media campaign waged by Cockayne’s family, who became frustrated with the pace, competence and transparency of the police investigation, the brutal attack generated unfavorable national headlines regarding the safety of tourists visiting the Virgin Islands and a significant amount of negative publicity for St. John.
On October 10, six men and six women convicted Ward of assault and murder. But the jurors were not swayed by prosecutors’ arguments that the multiple attacks on Cockayne that night were all part of an orchestrated series of events, with the three defendants acting in concert and all equally culpable in the murder.
They acquitted Boston and Thomas of murder but found each man guilty of two counts of third-degree assault and two counts of using dangerous weapons, corresponding to attacks on Cockayne at Front Yard, then near Dolphin Market after he was followed out of the bar.
Friday was scheduled as a sentencing date, but because of the serious crimes and nuanced legal issues involved in the case, Hollar told the court she believed it prudent to entertain briefs from all attorneys before rendering decisions on the multiple motions before her. The judge said she will set a new sentencing date once she receives written arguments by a December 5 deadline.
Ward’s attorney, Michael Quinn, argued Friday that no evidence was presented at trial that proved the stabbing was premeditated, a necessary condition for first-degree murder.
He also argued that prosecution witnesses who incriminated his client — witnesses discovered by an investigator working for the other defendants — directly contradicted the testimony of an eyewitness at the crime scene.
Quinn continued by telling Hollar he believed testimony was improperly introduced at trial about a previous crime committed by his client.
All those legal errors amounted to a miscarriage of justice, according to Quinn, who requested a new trial.
Hollar said Quinn opened the door for testimony about Ward’s previous crime when he pointed out while cross-examining a witness that his client was seriously wounded in a shotgun attack in 2006. Prosecutors countered by telling the jury that shooting was in retaliation for one committed by Ward the previous night in which a teenager was wounded in the hand.
Michael Joseph and Ben Currence, representing Thomas and Boston respectively, both succeeded in reducing one of the two third-degree assault convictions to simple assault.
Hollar agreed the attack on Cockayne after he left the bar did not meet the felony criteria of an assault with a deadly weapon. While witnesses testified they saw the defendants surround Cockayne while brandishing wooden sticks, there was insufficient evidence that they struck the young man with the makeshift weapons.
A stick is only deadly when it is used in a fashion that threatens the victim’s life, Hollar said.
Assistant Attorney General Renee Gumbs-Carty argued that a two-by-four raised to strike someone was inherently life-threatening. Bruises on Cockayne’s head and back showed he suffered a serious beating, she said.
Joseph and Currence also argued Hollar should reduce the remaining third-degree assault charges in the same manner.
Those charges correspond to Boston striking Cockayne with a pool cue at Front Yard, and a second attack with the wooden plank committed by Thomas.Currence maintained Boston shattered the pool cue on a window sill and not over Cockayne’s shoulder.
But testimony from witnesses at the bar made clear Cockayne was not hurt. According to a bartender, Cockayne sat at the bar after the fight and drank a beer until he was asked to leave because he was bothering other customers. If Cockayne was struck with the cue, then it was too flimsy to be considered a deadly weapon, Currence said.
Joseph said the only serious attack on Cockayne was the stabbing. The “circus” that took place in Cruz Bay earlier that night was nothing more than a chase. The subsequent murder should not elevate the severity of the assaults, he argued.
But Gumbs-Carty argued Cockayne was seriously injured when he reached his car, and the jury correctly inferred Boston and Thomas were responsible. Near the spot where Cockayne’s car was parked, the knife-wielding attacker pounced on the Pennsylvania man.
The 21-year-old, inebriated and beat up, could not defend himself, and ultimately bled to death from a wound to his femoral artery.