V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall dealt a blow to prosecutors in the highly publicized James Cockayne homicide case on Thursday afternoon, August 9, when he paved the way for murder suspect Kamal Thomas’ release from prison.
Denying Assistant Attorney General Renee Gumbs-Carty’s motion to detain Thomas — who faces first degree murder, first degree assault and weapons charges — until his trial, Kendall set bail at $75,000 and allowed the suspect to post only 10 percent of that amount.
Arguing that Thomas had loose ties to the community and — since he listed his occupation as a fisherman — access to boats, Gumbs-Carty had requested bail to be set at $500,000.
Kendall deemed that amount excessive and in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits undue bail.
After speaking with the defendant’s family members in the courtroom, Public Defender Harold Willocks said relatives could raise the required $7,500 and were waiting to have a third party custodian appointed, another condition of Thomas’ release.
Thomas, a Georgia-native who had been living on St. John for about a year at the time of his arrest, will also be placed under house arrest and wear an electronic monitoring device when he is released, which was expected sometime Friday, August 10.
Police officials allege that after Thomas and Cockayne, 21, got into a fight in the Front Yard bar in Cruz Bay, Thomas followed the Pennsylvania man up the road where he was stabbed to death near the Texaco gas station.
Fifteen-year V.I. Police Department detective Mario Stout, who signed the affidavit supporting Thomas’ arrest warrant, testified that witnesses saw Thomas and his friend Anselmo Boston — who was arrested late on Thursday, August 9 — get into an altercation with Cockayne at the Front Yard the night of the murder.
After breaking a pool stick over Cockayne’s head because he had kicked Boston’s girlfriend’s Jeep, Thomas and Boston were thrown out of the bar while Cockayne was held inside, according to Stout’s testimony.
“Mr. Thomas put himself at the Front Yard where the fight took place and indicated he was present when Anselmo Boston confronted Mr. Cockayne,” said Stout.
Several witnesses tried to intervene and told Thomas to “leave the white boy alone,” Stout testified.
Some time later, Boston, Thomas and another man followed Cockayne up the hill where they intended to get “satisfaction,” for the Jeep kicking incident, Stout explained on the stand.
After the murder Thomas went to another bar for a drink, according to Stout’s testimony.
When cross-examined by Willocks, Stout — admitting the case against Thomas was circumstantial — said he was aware of, but had not interviewed, two witnesses who placed Thomas at the beach at the time of the murder.
“You arrested Mr. Thomas knowing that there are several alibi witnesses who put Mr. Thomas somewhere else at the time of the murder,” said Willocks.
Stout said he had not interviewed any alibi witnesses because the investigation is ongoing.
Despite several objections from the prosecution, Kendall allowed Willocks to question Stout’s integrity and credibility in light of his involvement in the controversial 2005 Hart brothers case.
Jahmal Hart and Akil Hart were arrested on suspicion of murdering two tourists from New York and spent more than a year in jail before charges against them were dismissed when the VIPD’s chief witness recanted and claimed coercion.
Stout signed the affidavit supporting the Hart brothers’ arrest warrant.
“Just like you are doing now, you sat there and said they did it,” said Willocks about Stout’s involvement in the Hart brothers’ case. “And now you come to tell us Mr. Thomas is involved in this murder.”
Stout said his integrity had never been questioned before the Hart case.
Thomas was originally questioned hours after the murder and was interviewed by VIPD officials again on July 10 before finally bing arrested on August 3 in Pine Peace, giving him plenty of time to flee, said Willocks.
Gumbs-Carty failed to provide clear and convincing evidence of Thomas’ guilt or the need to hold him without bail, Kendall explained.
“This court has no choice under the circumstances but to deny People’s motion for detention without bail,” Kendall said.
In addition to first degree murder, first degree assault and using a dangerous weapon during the commission of a crime of violence, Thomas was also charged with intimidating a witness in Cruz Bay on July 31.
Ryan Meade, 31, of Pine Peace, was arrested on Monday, August 6, for witness intimidation as well. Police allege that earlier on July 31 Meade threatened the same witness Thomas intimidated that day. For that charge Kendall set a $10,000 unsecured bond for Meade’s bail.
For Thomas’ intimidation charge, Kendall set bail as a $25,000 surety bond. That surety bond — which remains on top of the $7,500 bail set Thursday — allows Thomas to post property worth twice the amount in lieu of cash.
Kendall’s decision angered Cockayne’s parents, who are not been pleased with how officials have handled the case. Bill and Jeanie Cockayne launched a media campaign about a month after their son’s murder alleging that the VIPD did not properly collect evidence, were botching the investigation and keeping them in the dark.
The Cockaynes hired their own private investigator and have appeared on national news outlets CNN and Fox News Channel, as well as several local Philadelphia and Ohio stations.
In his closing statement Willocks said the arrest of Thomas before the VIPD’s investigation was complete served only one purpose — “to satisfy the media.”