Jan. 10, 2007 — Brothers Akil and Jahmal Hart, charged with gunning down two New York tourists in June 2005, will be released on bail until their case goes to trial on April 2. The Harts have been in jail for approximately 18 months, since they were arrested in July of 2005.
During a hearing held Wednesday, V.I. Superior Court Judge Edgar Ross granted the brothers' bail after Assistant Attorney General Douglas Dick requested that the prosecution be given more time to investigate claims recently made by Goshnell "Foma" Walters, a key government witness that originally identified the Harts as being at the scene of the crime.
Reports published last month by the Daily News claim that Walters has recanted his original account of the murders, which occurred near the Frenchtown Post Office in the early morning hours of June 15, 2005.
In a 30-page statement, dictated to former Police Detective Joel Dowdye, Walters says he did not see what happened to New York residents Leon H. Roberts and Tristan A. Charlier but was "forced" by police into saying that he did (See "VIPD Officials Not Commenting About Witness's Alleged Statement in New York Tourists Murder Case").
Walters' statement prompted defense attorney Stephen Brusch to file a motion asking for the case to be dismissed. In the motion, filed on Monday, Brusch says that allowing the case to proceed would be "to permit Walters' coerced perjury and to corrupt the administration of justice ."
During Wednesday's hearing, Brusch made similar statements, saying that he "is confident" that the government has no evidence against the brothers. "The only witness against my clients now said he wasn't there," he said. "The prosecutor's duty is to fight hard, but fight fair — to not just get victories, but justice."
Brusch also cast doubt upon the reliability of the witness, an admitted crack addict, saying that the prosecution tried to hide Walters' drug problems. "He was not an ordinary citizen," Brusch said. "He has a serious disability."
While Ross has not yet ruled on Brusch's motion to dismiss, he did give the prosecution additional time to look into Walters' recent allegations, which speak out against the actions of three police detectives and Assistant Attorney General Ernest Bason.
After Ross shot down the prosecution's initial request for a six-month continuance, Dick cut the time down to three months, saying that more "time was needed" to reinvestigate the case in light of Walters' statement.
Ross see-sawed in his position, first saying he would not grant the additional three months. "I see no reason to continue the case since these defendants have been in custody for more than a year," he said.
Brusch agreed and asked for the trial to proceed as planned on Jan. 16. Brusch added that he would "gladly" accept a dismissal motion from the government that allowed prosecutors to reinvestigate and recharge the Harts if sufficient evidence is found.
Ross later said that although he "sympathized with the defendants' position," he would "reluctantly" grant the government's request, setting a new trial date for April 2 at 9 a.m.
Addressing the fact that the brothers have been held in jail since their arrest in 2005, Brusch subsequently asked for the Harts to be released into the custody of their parents pending trial. Ross granted a conditional release, limiting the brothers to a 6 p.m. curfew and mandating visits to a probation officer "no less than once a week."
The Hart parents will sign a $500,000 unsecured bond to meet the bail requirements, while family friend Paul Walwyn will put up a piece of property worth $350,000.
While Brusch assured Ross that the brothers were "not a flight risk" or "danger to the community," the Harts' travel documents, including passports, will be confiscated in the interim.
Ross also allowed attorney Adam Christian, formerly representing Akil Hart, to withdraw from the case because of a conflict of interest. Christian was recently named legal counsel to Gov. John deJongh Jr.
Clad in red jumpsuits, the brothers were all smiles as Ross granted their temporary release, opening their arms at the end of the hearing to embrace their parents.
Speaking after the hearing, Brusch maintained the brothers' innocence and said he would still "be working aggressively to defend them."
Brusch added that he has already begun working on documents authorizing the release, which must first be signed by Ross before the brothers are handed over to their parents. "Hopefully they'll be out by tomorrow," Brusch said.
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