Kyle Christopher, set to stand trial Dec. 6 for murder in the 2019 death of 4-year-old Aaron Benjamin Jr., alleges that his right to a fair trial has been derailed by media coverage of the recent plea deal for the child’s mother.
Delicia Daniel, who had faced murder charges along with Christopher, her former boyfriend, pleaded guilty Oct. 22 to a single charge of child abuse in the death of her son. Her sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 21 when she faces up to 20 years in jail.
Daniel, 31, and Christopher, 23, have been detained on $1 million bail each since their arrests in October 2019. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, child abuse, child neglect, aggravated child abuse and neglect, and third-degree assault.
Daniel’s plea deal garnered widespread news coverage and social media attention, damaging Christopher’s chance at a fair trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, his lawyer alleges in a motion to continue trial – essentially a request to postpone proceedings — filed Nov. 5 in Superior Court on St. Croix.
When she entered her guilty plea to the lesser charge on Oct. 22, “the Court requested Ms. Daniel provide a factual basis for her plea. Attempting to mitigate her own guilt, Ms. Daniel made several incriminating statements against Mr. Christopher alleging prior abuse of the decedent,” according to the motion by Chief Territorial Public Defender Samuel Joseph, who is representing Christopher.
“Moreover, the People issued a statement regarding Ms. Daniel’s disposition which was reported in the St. Croix Avis, Virgin Islands Daily News, various news radio, and a plethora of digital news forums,” said Joseph. Christopher “does not believe that he can receive a fair trial at this time given the nature of the news coverage,” he said.
Exhibits filed in support of the motion include front-page stories about the plea deal by the Daily News, the Avis and the V.I. Consortium, and close to 50 hostile comments the latter generated when posted to Facebook, where it was shared almost 100 times. The Source also reported on Daniel’s plea deal, along with Caribbean Loop News, and local radio stations including in the British Virgin Islands.
Aaron’s death on Oct. 11, 2019, when first responders found him unresponsive on the bathroom floor of an apartment at the Lorraine Village housing community on St. Croix, shocked the territory and led to an investigation by the Human Resources Department and V.I. Police amid allegations that the child’s father had previously reported suspicions of abuse.
Now, the publicity surrounding Daniel’s plea deal has poisoned the jury pool, Joseph said in his motion to continue.
“Part of assessing the impact of pretrial publicity requires looking at the size of the population, the prospective jury pool. … In the matter herein, the entire territory, having a reported population of 87,146 as of April 1, 2020, was blanketed with pretrial publicity sparked by the People’s disclosure of Ms. Daniel’s plea. … The reporting herein did not limit itself to Ms. Daniel’s plea. The reports included Mr. Christopher’s purported confession to causing the death of the minor, the cause of death from autopsy findings, and statements [of] other witnesses alleging a history of abuse,” said Joseph.
Additionally, the news reports of Daniel’s plea deal contained links to previous stories about the involvement/fault of Human Services in Aaron’s death and calls for justice and reform by members of the V.I. Legislature, said Joseph.
“The hostile atmosphere generated by the news reporting is documented and indisputable. … Most of the comments on Facebook made clear that Mr. Christopher had already been found guilty in the court of public opinion and is deserving of punishment,” Joseph said.
“Given these facts, Mr. Christopher avers that he cannot receive a fair trial in the immediate future or near future in the territory. Mr. Christopher fully anticipates that Ms. Daniel’s sentencing will resuscitate the community’s hostility towards him,” said Joseph.
“Mr. Christopher, having been detained since October 2019, understands and appreciates the Court’s intention to resolve detainee matters quickly. However, the penalties facing Mr. Christopher are the most severe in the land, and the People’s disclosure of the plea to the media mere weeks before the December 6th trial date has jeopardized his right to a fair trial,” Joseph said in the motion.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Harold Willocks has yet to rule on the motion, according to the court docket.