Accused murderer Devon Auriel Frett denied knowing anything about the death of law clerk Gabriel Lerner when he testified in his own defense Wednesday, a day on which both the prosecution and defense rested their cases.
Frett’s words directly contradicted incriminating testimony given on Tuesday by Frett’s alleged accomplice John Jared Southwell, and also differed from a statement the defendant himself gave to police shortly after the murder, in which he pointed the finger at Southwell.
Frett, 24, is on trial in Magistrate’s Court in St. Thomas. He is accused of carjacking, robbing, and murdering Lerner on Oct. 26, 2008, in a case which largely rests on the allegations made by Southwell, 19.
Frett faces charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery, possession of an unlicensed firearm, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and possession of stolen property.
Southwell pleaded guilty last September to one count each of second-degree murder and first-degree assault-robbery. He is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence. In exchange for his testimony in the trial, prosecutors agreed to try to reduce his sentence.
On Tuesday Southwell claimed Frett was the mastermind behind the whole crime spree and that Frett was the one who commandeered Lerner’s car and shot him in the back of the head.
However, on the stand Wednesday Frett said he did neither of those things, but did not point the finger back at Southwell. In about one hour’s worth of testimony, he gave his version of the events that occurred that fateful October day.
Frett claimed that Southwell arrived at his room at the Midtown Guesthouse that morning, wanting to go with Frett to St. John to have some fun. When Frett complained that he didn’t have a ride, Southwell allegedly said, "Don’t worry, I got a car," and pointed to a maroon Ford Focus parked on the street below.
Lerner’s car was a maroon Ford Focus.
After the two men got in the car, they drove to Friendly Grocery on Crown Mountain Road, where Frett said Southwell used Lerner’s credit card to buy gas and food. Frett said he didn’t know how Southwell got the card.
"Was Lerner in the car then?" asked prosecuting attorney Brenda Scales.
"No," Frett replied.
"So he had the credit card before he saw you?" Scales continued.
"Yes," Frett said.
When asked to explain why Friendly’s surveillance video showed him and Southwell looking repeatedly out the window next to the cash register as they were making their purchases, Frett said it was not because they were worried about Lerner’s presence in the car.
"Lerner was not in the car. I don’t know anything about that," Frett said. "We were looking out the window because the cashier asked us what pump we were at. And the white lady in the car behind us was yelling and blowing her horn because she wanted us to move, since she could not reach the pump."
Frett also had his own explanation of where he and Southwell were during the 40-minute gap between when they left Friendly’s around 10:29 a.m. and returned once again at 11:11 a.m.
"We drove back to town, but John said he forgot to buy the tint," Frett testified. "So we drove back to Friendly to get the tint, but they didn’t have any."
On Tuesday Southwell and the prosecution alleged that Lerner was taken to Bordeaux and shot by Frett during this time period.
After they left Friendly the second time, Frett said they found some tint and stickers at Advance Auto, and spent the rest of the afternoon applying them to the Ford.
Frett also disputed Southwell’s version of the events of Oct. 28, the day the two men were chased and apprehended by police.
When the all-points bulletin came over the radio around noon, Frett said he turned to Southwell and said "Is that us?" to which Southwell replied "I don’t know."
After Frett, who was behind the wheel of the Ford, realized an unmarked police car had spotted them, he claims that Southwell told him "Go! Go! Go! They’ll put you back in jail!" and the chase began.
Frett said Southwell was referring to a previous jail sentence Frett served for third-degree assault, relating to an incident where he beat up a woman he was dating after he found her in bed with another man.
"Why did you run?" Scales asked, referring to the police chase that led up Crown Mountain Road.
"First, I was illegal in St. Thomas, and second I didn’t have a driver’s license for the U.S.," Frett said. "I had just gotten out of jail and didn’t want to go back."
Frett found it harder to explain why his testimony differed so greatly from the statement he allegedly gave to detective Mario Stout the evening of Oct. 28, a statement he denied even making while on the stand Wednesday. It was taken after he and Southwell were apprehended in the bushes near Scott Free Road, not far from where the police chase ended.
Frett’s statment mirrored Southwell’s statement from the same day and also Southwell’s testimony from Tuesday, except that in it Frett said Southwell pulled the trigger and killed Lerner.
The statement was not admitted during the trial as primary evidence, and was in fact suppressed before the trial after a motion was made by defense attorney Michael Joseph. Joseph said that the statement was ruled inadmissible because police did not follow procedure when they took it. Specifically, Frett was not given an attorney when he asked for one.
However, the statement was allowed to be admitted during the prosecution’s cross-examination of Frett, under the rules relating to prior inconsistent statements.
Scales spent several tense minutes peppering Frett with tough questions that challenged his about-face regarding the disavowed statement.
"How do you explain the difference between your testimony and the statement?" Scales inquired.
"My testimony is the facts, and the statement I did not give," Frett answered. "I did not speak to Stout. He came in and threw a bunch of papers in front of me and said ‘Just sign them.’ I didn’t see them again until the deposition."
"Do you recall making a statement on Oct. 28 to Stout that you caught a ride with a white boy on Cassi Hill?" Scales asked while reading verbatim from the statement.
"No," Frett said.
"But it’s in the statement," Scales continued.
"It’s in the statement, but I never told him that," Frett said.
"So you didn’t you make the statement that ‘John killed the white boy?’" Scales asked.
"No, I didn’t," Frett insisted.
"So Stout just made everything up?" Scales said.
"Yes, he did," Frett said.
Scales also challenged Frett on the Miranda waiver that he signed, which Frett claimed not to have read or understood.
"You signed a waiver, right?" Scales inquired, showing Frett a copy of the Miranda waiver with his signature on it.
"Yes," Frett said.
"Did you read it?"
"No," Frett answered. "I signed some papers that Stout said I don’t have to look over."
"But you’ve been through the legal system before?" Scales asked.
"Yes, but since I’m a citizen of BVI, I’m not that familiar with the U.S. system," Frett countered.
When Stout took the stand shortly after Frett, he denied making up any statements and said that he never told Frett he couldn’t have an attorney. He said that Frett did ask for an attorney, but police didn’t get one for him because they had stopped questioning him at that point.
Lerner’s mother, Jenny Ann Wanasek, also testified on Wednesday. A theater instructor in Milwaukee, Wanasek’s voice wavered with emotion as she talked lovingly of Lerner’s personality and goals.
"Gabe was one of the most disciplined people you’ll ever meet," she said. "He was exceedingly smart and controlled. He loved people and wanted to help people. He loved to discuss things with us and make us laugh. And he wanted to do good things with his life. He wanted to serve the youth of St. Thomas."
Closing arguments commence Thursday morning.