Convicts change statements in King murder case appeal

PHILIPSBURG - "Gruesome," "heartless" and "cruel" were terms used in court on Thursday. Family and friends of murdered Michael and Thelma King were forced to relive the details as the Joint Court heard an appeal in the cases of Meyshane Kemar Johnson (30) of Jamaica, Jamal Jefferson Woolford (22) of Guyana and Jeremiah Mills (19) of St. Maarten.
Johnson, who had no previous criminal record, is serving life imprisonment.
Mills, who had been in prison before, received 28 years.
Woolford, who also had a clean record, received 22 years after being found guilty by the Court of First Instance of an armed burglary with violence causing the deaths of American couple Michael and Thelma King, and an armed robbery at Chinese restaurant Happy Star.
The three men had committed the robbery at Happy Star Restaurant on September 19, 2012, armed with BB guns that to members of the public looked like genuine firearms. Two of the men entered the restaurant, terrorised staff and customers inside, took money and left in a getaway vehicle driven by the third man. They were chased and shot at by the police, but managed to escape.
They made their way to Cupecoy, where they came up with a plan to break into a house. They found themselves on Ocean Drive where they found a house that still had lights on. Making their way inside, they found Michael King asleep on the sofa. He was woken up and threatened with the BB gun. One of the men asked him where the money was. When King replied, "What money?" he was punched in the stomach.
Whilst one of the men held King in a headlock, the other two went upstairs to the safe. King had asked them, "Please don't hurt my wife." Thelma King was upstairs asleep in bed. She was forced to open the safe and to hand over jewellery.
She then was brought downstairs, forced to sit on a chair, tied up and gagged. Both victims' throats were cut and they were left to die whilst the suspects left in possession of their money, credit cards and property. After committing the offences the robbers spent part of the money in a brothel.
The convicts had appealed the verdict of the Court of First Instance, which convicted them of six offences: armed robbery at Happy Star; theft with violence with death as a consequence; false imprisonment of Thelma King; laundering money; and, most serious, the murders of Michael and Thelma King (Johnson), co-perpetrating in the murder of Michael King (Mills) and complicity in the murder of Michael and Thelma King (Woolford and Mills).
The Appeal Court saw the judge asking the men on what grounds they were appealing their sentences. Johnson muttered an unclear sentence and had to repeat himself several times before making it understood that he believed there had been an irregularity with paperwork and he did not agree with being given a life sentence.
Mills stated he was a parent of a young daughter. His own parents are sickly and there is no one to take care of his mother. He said "I can't be sentenced to 28 years for a crime I didn't commit. That isn't, let's say, sick."
Woolford said: "It's been a year since I've been sent down. I've been rehabilitated. I have a young daughter. It's not fair I'm in prison for something I didn't do."
When Johnson was told to recap his version of event, he stated that he could not remember. This matched with his behaviour in the Court of First Instance. He then also said he remembered nothing of that night. When the judge pressed him for answers, he replied: "You want a story? I don't have a story, sorry."
However, Johnson initially had given a detailed statement to the police admitting the offences and implicating the other two suspects. Johnson stated that Mills had hit Michael King with a fire extinguisher and that Mills had handed him the second of two knives with which he had stabbed Michael King. He said both Mills and Woolford had been present throughout the time of the offences.
Mills was more forthcoming, admitting to the robbery at Happy Star and holding a BB gun against a customer's head. He recalled "almost being shot" by police. He stated that he had used marijuana and needed more money than what he had obtained in the robbery. He went to a casino. When this did not have the desired result, he and the two other men decided to break into a house. Mills remembered going into the house.
However, Mills' account to the Court from that point varied greatly from the statement he had given to the police and the account he had given to the Court of First Instance. In appeal he stated he did not remember seeing Johnson in possession of a knife.
Mills denied any involvement in the killings of the Kings. He admitted tying up Thelma King, giving as a reason that he had not wanted to end up back in court. He said he had walked out after tying up his victim and had left with the property he had taken. He said he could not recall anything after that. He denied hitting Michael King with the fire extinguisher. Mills stated: "I don't remember anyone dying in my presence."
Woolford also stated that he never had seen a knife, but had seen a "shiny object." He admitted blindfolding Thelma King and stated that this had been so that they could leave the house. He had said in a previous statement that he had seen a knife. He also had said he had seen Mills with the fire extinguisher, which he denied in the appeal.
Woolford said he could not remember if he had been the first to leave the house and it appeared his memories of the offence also had become more unclear since his initial account. When asked about the discrepancies he said: "Those are mistakes they made in the statement."
Two of the judges questioned the three men, challenging the loss of memories and the changed statements. One of the judges asked how this was possible, as the initial statements, which all matched those of the other suspects, as well as forensic evidence and other crime scene evidence. No account was given.
Johnson became increasingly strange in manner throughout the appeal. At one point he started to make remarks about angels and in the Court of First Instance he had reported seeing frogs in the courtroom. He had been subjected to a number of separate psychiatric and psychological examinations, but it had been found that there was no evidence of mental illness and he could be held fully accountable.
It was mentioned though that the psychologist had not been able to determine if Johnson's apparent memory loss was due to suppression or was simulated. A significant detail brought up by his solicitor was the fact that Johnson, as a child, had lost his own father in an armed robbery with his father's throat having been cut in a manner similar to that inflicted on his victims.
Both the prosecutor in presenting his case and Johnson's lawyer in his defence focused on the legality of life sentencing. The prosecutor recognised the fact that the Joint Court had determined in the so-called Regatta Cases that life sentencing was opposed to article 3 of the European Treaty for Human Rights and against state regulations because there is insufficient possibility for review with a prospect of release.
The prosecutor focused on the fact that a pardon could be given in certain circumstances and therefore it could not be said that release from a life sentence was a complete impossibility; because a pardon is a possibility in St. Maarten, even if it is a remote one, a life sentence would no longer be contrary to article 3 of the Human Rights Treaty.
The prosecutor stated there also was a further possibility to discuss the continuance of a life sentence through a civil procedure where a civil judge could order the release if he believed legitimate penal grounds for continued imprisonment no longer existed. This would be a second tool for convicts to have a life sentence shortened.
Johnson's lawyer challenged the legality of his life sentence and brought up irregularities in the summonses sent to her client, some of which appeared to have been sent outside of a legal deadline. She requested that his sentence be reversed due to those irregularities, on the same grounds that his appeal would have been refused if he had submitted it a day late.
She said: "I'm not defending my client's action. I'm just applying the law." She further mentioned that Johnson had been beaten by officers after his arrest, an incident that is under police investigation.
The other two men's lawyers focussed on their clients' innocence regarding certain parts the case, whilst acknowledging the seriousness of the crimes and the parts to which their clients had admitted. They both focussed on their clients not being responsible for the murders of the King couple.
Mills' lawyer stated that he largely had confessed and expected to be punished. However, she said her client was not guilty of all charges and would like the charges to be put into the right context and to be punished appropriately. She said the deaths could not be attributed to her client. He had not known there was a weapon and could not have foreseen victims' deaths. She requested reversal of his sentence for his part in the murders.
Woolford's lawyer said her client had been "shocked" when the Court had said he had no respect for human life. She said Woolford had admitted and taken responsibility for the robbery and the burglary; therefore, it was not true that he did not take responsibility for his actions.
She said his part in the offences had been driven by a need for money to pay his rent and his focus had been on acquiring money and nothing else. She also stated her client had not seen a knife, although he had seen a "shiny object" going towards Michael King's throat, after which her client had told Johnson "don't do it."
The lawyer mentioned her client had seen blood, could not face it anymore and had left the house. This in itself was more information than her client had been able to remember when questioned by the judges.
The judges will give their verdict in three weeks. Michael and Thelma King's family and friends, who have shown dignity and courage during every hearing in this case, will be flying back to St. Maarten to hear the final verdict.
(The daily Herald)

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