Virgin Islands high court orders hearing on removal of suspected Mason from jury
By Michael Todd
ST. THOMAS – The V.I. Supreme Court has ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether a Superior Court judge removed a juror improperly after prosecutors suspected that he flashed Masonic hand signals to convicted murderer and ex-cop Joel Dowdye during the trial.
Court records indicate that Dowdye’s chest bore a Masonic tattoo when he was arrested in connection with a Bunker Hill Guest House shooting in which two victims were shot on March 25, 2006.
In March 2007, a St. Thomas jury found Dowdye guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend, 22-year-old Sherett James, and trying to murder her companion, 32-year-old Daren “Bogle” Stevens, in a downtown hotel room. Dowdye later was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 40 years.
Dowdye was charged with six of the eight original felony charges: first-degree murder, using a dangerous weapon during the commission of that crime, attempted first-degree murder, using a dangerous weapon during the commission of that crime, first-degree assault and using a dangerous weapon during the commission of that crime.
During Dowdye’s trial, his ties to the Freemasons arose several times.
William Curtis, chief investigator for the V.I. Justice Department, told The Daily News in March 2007 that two prosecutors asked him to come to court and observe the suspect juror. Curtis said he did not recognize any of the juror’s movements and gestures as having such significance, but prosecutors asked V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar to remove the man from the jury.
In 2009, Dowdye’s attorney, Joseph Mingolla, told appellate court justices that his client was denied a fair trial because Hollar asked the jurors if they had any knowledge of the Masons and also had a court marshal display a Masonic symbol before jurors.
Dowdye asserts that the juror’s removal without a proper inquiry by the trial court violated his constitutional right to a trial by an impartial jury, according to the high court’s Sept. 14 opinion.
The Supreme Court upheld the appeal and remanded it to Superior Court, which is directed to determine whether the juror was untruthful during voir dire – a questioning of jurors – by failing to respond to any of the trial court’s questions about Freemasons, according to the high court opinion. The lower court also is to determine whether the juror and the defendant exchanged Masonic gestures or signs during the trial, and if so, whether that justified that juror’s removal.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Maria Cabret disagreed that the matter deserves an evidentiary hearing, according to the opinion.
“Although I agree with the majority’s conclusion that the trial judge dismissed Juror No. 3 without an adequate factual basis to believe that Juror No. 3 was a Freemason or in communication with Dowdye, I believe, for the following reasons, that this Court should order the parties to provide the full trial transcript and review the case for harmless error rather than remand the case for a Remmer hearing that cannot address the trial court’s violation,” Cabret wrote.
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedures allows a court to impanel six alternate jurors to replace a disqualified or incapable juror.
Cabret and Associate Supreme Court Justice Ive Swan, along with Designated Justice Thomas Moore, issued the opinion. Chief Justice Rhys Hodge was recused – or excused – from ruling on Dowdye’s request for an appeal.
Cabret stated that Dowdye’s sentencing was conducted by an impartial jury, but she challenged the trial court’s decision to question Juror No. 3 after the trial was under way.
“The question here is whether the Superior Court erred by violating the defendant’s right to be tried by the particular unbiased jury, which was originally sworn in,” Cabret wrote. “There is no question in this case that all 12 of the jurors who eventually decided Dowdye’s case were impartial.
“The trial court’s creation of an adequate factual record at a post hoc proceeding does not erase or mitigate its violation of Dowdye’s right to have no sitting juror dismissed without adequate factual support at the time of the dismissal,” Cabret wrote. “The violation has already occurred, and post hoc proceedings cannot change that.
“The only question remains, and the one I would address, is whether that violation was harmless,” according to Cabret’s dissenting opinion.