Masonic police officer convicted of murder; juror dismissed for allegedly flashing him Masonic hand gestures
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
A Virgin Islands man was removed as a juror in a murder trial jury for allegedly flashing Masonic hand gestures to the defendant and others in the courtroom, including witnesses.
William Curtis, chief investigator for the V.I. Justice Department, said two prosecutors asked him on Wednesday to come to court and keep an eye on the suspect juror. Curtis said he is familiar with Masonic signals and did not recognize any of the juror's movements and gestures as having significance, but prosecutors asked [the judge] to remove the man from the jury.
Later in the trial, Elvet Carty was called as a character witness for former police detective Joel Dowdye, charged with murdering his ex-girlfriend and trying to murder her companion in a downtown hotel room.
Carty said his friend Dowdye was dedicated to the community and donated his time to working with at-risk children.
Under cross-examination Carty admitted he was Dowdye's Masonic lodge brother after the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Cornelius Williams, asked him if he was wearing a Masonic ring.
One of the first phone calls Dowdye made after the murder was to Carty.
When Williams asked whether Dowdye is a Freemason, Dowdye answered, "Just like you, sir." Williams denied in court that he was a Mason.
Virgin Islands Daily News
Dowdye guilty of killing ex-girlfriend
Former police detective convicted on all counts, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole
Monday, March 5th 2007
By JOSEPH TSIDULKO
ST. THOMAS - After deliberating for most of the weekend, a panel of sequestered jurors returned to V.I. Superior Court on Sunday and delivered a guilty verdict against former police detective Joel Dowdye, charged with murdering his ex-girlfriend and trying to murder her companion in a downtown hotel room.
The four men and eight women rejected Dowdye's claim that he was only protecting himself on March 25, 2006, when he burst into Room 43 of Bunker Hill Guest House and fired his police-issued handgun five times, killing 22-year-old Sherett James and critically wounding 32-year-old Daren "Bogle" Stevens.
Dowdye, 39, stood expressionless next to his attorney as the court clerk read the verdict - guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of attempted first-degree murder, guilty of first-degree assault and guilty on three counts of using a dangerous weapon during the commission of those crimes. Two other charges - second-degree murder and a corresponding weapons charge - were lesser-included offenses in connection with James' death.
"Now my daughter can rest in peace. Sherett can rest in peace now," Caroline Brunn, James' mother, said tearfully while walking out of the courthouse.
The grief-stricken mother was the first witness called by the prosecution on Tuesday. She spoke of the morning when her sister broke the news of the shooting, and how she prayed that the information was not correct and her daughter might still be alive.
"Everybody who ever met Sherett fell in love with her," Brunn said after Dowdye's conviction on the charges, which carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
"Now I have to concentrate on taking care of Sherett's daughter. She is only 4," she added.
In four 10-hour days of testimony that ranged from the humdrum and procedural to emotional and shocking, people in Judge Brenda Hollar's crowded courtroom heard several often-conflicting versions of the events leading up to the deadly attack and transpiring in its aftermath. While witnesses - including several of the defendant's former colleagues in the Investigations Bureau - recalled their actions and disbelief after hearing Dowdye's name announced on the police radio as a possible suspect in a homicide, only Dowdye and Stevens could offer direct testimony as to what happened that morning in room 43. Each man accused the other of being the aggressor.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Stephen Brusch painted a portrait of a talented and dedicated detective cracking at the seams from the pressures of a 24-hour-a-day job and prolonged exposure to violent criminals.
Dowdye's attorney said he would not challenge much of the evidence presented by prosecutors, only the conclusions drawn from the evidence.
Brusch said his client was under such "extreme stress" that it skewed his ability to properly perceive threats.
Brusch said that while Dowdye may have reacted poorly when he entered Room 43 uninvited, he came there to help James, who he believed was in distress. Dowdye fired in self-defense after he sensed a legitimate threat from Stevens, a corrections officer at the V.I. Youth Rehabilitation Center, who was armed with a handgun.
Assistant Attorney General Nolan Paige called the attack an "execution" in his opening statement, telling jurors the evidence made clear that Dowdye deliberately killed in cold blood, motivated only by jealousy.
The "horrific crime" was perpetrated with the "tactical precision of someone who knew how to handle a gun, who had pulled a trigger before," Paige said of the former police detective, who fatally shot a machete-wielding man who went on a homicidal rampage in November 2004.
By Friday, Brusch made the decision to put his client on the stand, leading to the most heated exchanges in the trial.
From the first minute of his cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Cornelius Williams aggressively attacked Dowdye's character, version of events and ostensible lack of memory.
Dowdye remained cool for more than an hour, repeatedly claiming that he never saw James in the room, that he fired only when he thought Stevens was reaching for his holstered handgun and that he did not know he had even hit anyone.
Asked to explain why he ran from the scene, Dowdye said he believed Stevens was chasing him.
"Everything happened so fast I just don't remember," Dowdye said to explain his inability to provide details about the period between the shooting and his arrest.
The tension culminated after Williams asked Dowdye - who was standing next to a a projected photo showing James lying on the floor face down in a pool of blood, a comforter over most of her body and a shell casing with a corresponding evidence marker beside it - if he was admiring his work.
"You're making a joke, that's what you're doing," Dowdye said. He pointed to the screen as he walked back to the witness stand and defiantly said, "That's not a joke."
Williams agreed, telling the former detective that he was pointing at the woman he shot twice in the head.
Dowdye exploded in anger. "For the last time, I did not kill Sherett James!"
Once Williams resumed questioning, Dowdye's composure seemed to slip.
The prosecutor brought up Dowdye's trip after the shooting to St. Thomas' Peterborg peninsula, where he surrendered to Sgt. Milton Petersen, his commander in the Investigations Bureau.
Dowdye yelled over the prosecutor's questions, "You want to know why I went to Peterborg that day? You want to know why I went to Peterborg that day? I went to Peterborg to kill myself."
After saying that he had contemplated suicide, Dowdye slumped back in the witness box and brought a tissue to his eyes with both hands.
Petersen, the new chief of police for the St. Thomas-St. John District, testified that he received a call from Dowdye after the shooting and drove out to the peninsula to meet his detective and bring him in.
With his pregnant wife, Detective Maria Petersen, in the car, the sergeant walked to the very tip of the peninsula at Picara Point, where he saw Dowdye standing near a sharp cliff. The police radio blared from inside Dowdye's green cruiser. Petersen said it appeared to him Dowdye's Chevy Trailblazer was "strategically parked" at an angle, with the door open.
Dowdye stood by the vehicle, holding his gun in one hand and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch whisky in the other.
"He expressed he was frightened. He was confused. He was not himself," Petersen said.
After Dowdye took two swigs from the whiskey bottle, Petersen persuaded him to stop drinking. Dowdye poured out the rest of the scotch, then threw the bottle over the cliff.
Dowdye told Petersen that he had been defending himself that morning.
He said he saw James and Stevens the previous night at the Green House Bar and Grill, and his former girlfriend indicated she was uncomfortable with her companion. Dowdye said he got the impression she was not there of her own free will, Petersen testified.
But when Dowdye took the witness stand, he said he developed the belief that James might be in trouble when she called his house in the early-morning hours before the attack and told him where she was.
Prosecutors argued that the call was never made, backing that claim with evidence that both of James' cell phones were left in her car overnight and no call had been placed from Stevens' phone or a landline in the guest house.
Dowdye's testimony also was sometimes in conflict with a statement he made to Major Crimes Detective Lionel Bess after Petersen brought him to the police department's Zone A Command, and with the testimony of his ex-wife, Diane Brown, an Internal Affairs detective who called Dowdye after learning he was a suspect in the shooting.
In his statement, Dowdye said James jumped between him and Stevens after the corrections guard became angry and combative, Bess testified.
Brown said Dowdye told her he had just killed two people, and she informed him the male victim survived. He told her he was thinking about leaving on a boat, and she pleaded with him to call his commanders and arrange his surrender, Brown testified.
After shots erupted that morning at the guest house, the hotel proprietor found the two victims, called 911 and began to pray by the side of the critically wounded corrections officer. Stevens identified Dowdye as the gunman to the hotel proprietor and to several of the first-responders - patrol officers and emergency medical technicians - who arrived at the shooting scene.
The 32-year-old corrections officer testified on Thursday that as he lay wounded with broken ribs and a punctured lung on the floor between the bathroom and bedroom, he tried to write Dowdye's name in his own blood out of fear he would not live to identify his attacker.
The ordeal began just past 8 a.m., when Stevens - who was visiting St. Thomas to emcee a concert - awoke to a call from the front desk, informing him that his friend "Kenny" was downstairs.
He threw on some clothes and holstered his gun, which he said was routine procedure for a law-enforcement officer.
When he opened the door, he saw Dowdye standing outside with his gun leveled.
"I'm doomed," Stevens thought when he saw the look on the detective's face, his teeth biting his lips.
"Don't do it," he pleaded.
But Dowdye opened fire. The first gunshot hit Stevens in the stomach. He tried to run, but the room was too small, and a second bullet in the back felled him in the bathroom doorway.
Stevens said he played dead. Through the ringing in his ears, he heard more shots.
After the gunman left, "The room just went silent. It was like darkness," Stevens said.
He then heard people screaming, praying and asking who shot him.
He repeated the name "Dowdye" over and over.
After Stevens tearfully described his ordeal, detailing the physical pain and psychological strain that have plagued him since the shooting, Brusch went after him with his own round of aggressive and contentious questioning.
A collective gasp was audible in the courtroom after Brusch asked Stevens to explain the sexual devices found inside the room by forensics detectives. The defense attorney elicited testimony that Stevens and James had sex for the first time that night, and suggested the sex was "rough" and perhaps not consensual.
James was shot once in the face and once in the back of the head. A bullet -Â likely the first shot to the cheek - blew off the young woman's left thumb.
Leroy Parker, a blood splatter and gunshot analysis expert, concluded the back-of-the-head shot was fired while she was face-down on the bed, her head in a pillow.
On the second day of trial, the jurors toured Room 43 of the Bunker Hill Guest House. They saw where James' body was found, where Stevens was felled by two gunshots and where a fifth bullet hit the wall.
Forensics detectives recovered five shell casings from that room, including one found inside the toilet and one found next to James' body.
A firearms examiner linked all the gunshots to Dowdye's .40-caliber Glock. While Stevens had the same model gun, tests showed the YRC guard did not get a shot off that morning.
Dowdye's ties to the Freemasons came up several times during the trial.
Between Thursday and Friday's court sessions, a man was bumped from the jury after he was suspected of flashing Masonic hand signals to Dowdye and others in the courtroom, including witnesses.
William Curtis, chief investigator for the V.I. Justice Department, said the two prosecutors asked him on Wednesday to come to court and keep an eye on the suspect juror. Curtis said he is familiar with Masonic signals and did not recognize any of the juror's movements and gestures as having significance, but prosecutors asked Hollar to remove the man from the jury.
Elvet Carty, an executive chef at a St. Thomas restaurant who was called as a character witness for the defendant, said his friend Dowdye was dedicated to the community and donated his time to working with at-risk children.
But Carty reluctantly admitted under cross-examination that he was Dowdye's Masonic lodge brother after Williams asked him if he was wearing a Masonic ring.
Shown cell phone records documenting several calls Dowdye made after the shooting - none of which were to 911 - the former detective acknowledged one of his first calls was to a lodge brother.
When Williams asked whether Dowdye is a Freemason, Dowdye answered, "Just like you, sir."
Williams stated for the record that he is not a Mason.
The jury began its deliberations on Saturday morning after Hollar delivered instructions to guide their decision-making.
On Saturday afternoon, the jury requested that the court reporter provide them with a transcript of the testimony from both Dowdye and Stevens. After consulting with attorneys on both sides, Hollar denied the request, telling jurors they should work from their memory and notes.
By 7 p.m. Saturday, they informed Hollar they were tired and needed a break. The judge decided to call it a day and released the group to their hotel for the night. The jurors had not seen their families since they were selected to hear the case on Monday.
Jurors resumed deliberations Sunday morning and informed the judge before noon that they had reached a verdict.
- Contact Joseph Tsidulko at 774-8772 ext. 332 or e-mail [email protected]