Case Caption: Richie Fontaine v. People of the Virgin IslandsCase Number: S. Ct. Crim. No. 2010-0029Date: 04/12/2012Author: Hodge, Rhys S. Citation: Summary:

In a prosecution stemming from a shooting death at a night club, although the information only charged the defendant as a principal actor, it also clearly invoked 14 V.I.C. §11, under which one charged as a principal may be convicted upon evidence that he aided and abetted a different individual in committing the crime. It is not disputed that the evidence was sufficient to establish the premeditation element of first degree murder, and review of the sufficiency of the evidence for the voluntary manslaughter conviction is denied in light of the invited error doctrine because defendant requested an instruction on this theory. The People introduced sufficient evidence that defendant personally committed the charged offenses, and the jury was free to credit other evidence that another individual fired the shot that killed the victim and that defendant was aware of, and wished to facilitate, that individual in accomplishing that goal. Thus the evidence was also sufficient to sustain the convictions under an aiding and abetting theory. However, the Superior Court erred in allowing a police officer who was not present at the night club at the time of the shooting to give extensive narration for a surveillance videotape as it played to the jury, commenting that it showed defendant with a firearm in his hand, identifying certain individuals as being "with" him, and commenting on the direction of ricocheting bullets, none of which was supported in the record. In this case, the video tape was of good quality, the jury visited the site of the shooting and personally observed defendant and key witnesses in the courtroom, and there is no suggestion that defendant altered his appearance between the day of the shooting and the trial. Thus, the jury had the same ability to identify the individuals in the videotape and surroundings as the police officer, and there is a likelihood that the judgment could have been swayed by the impermissible narration, warranting a new trial in this case. In addition, the trial judge failed to implement safeguards in the procedure for juror questioning of witnesses during this trial to protect defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial, by not permitting counsel for both parties to review and object to specific juror questions outside the presence of the jury before they were asked, and by permitting jurors to ask clarifying or follow-up questions of witnesses directly, with the trial judge not serving any gatekeeping function. The June 4, 2010 Judgment and Commitment upon convictions for voluntary manslaughter, first degree assault, unauthorized use of a firearm, and reckless endangerment are reversed, and this case is remanded for a new trial consistent with this Opinion.

Attachment: Open Document or Opinion