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Government of Virgin Islands v. Lanclos

decided: March 27, 1973.



Van Dusen, Rosenn and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter


HUNTER, Circuit Judge.

The defendant Ralph Lanclos appeals from his conviction in the district court of the Virgin Islands of murder in the first degree. By information, the government charged that the defendant, on April 30, 1971, in violation of 14 V.I.C. § 922(a)(1), with malice aforethought, did willfully, deliberately and with premeditation kill one Keith Stevens by shooting him with a pistol, thereby inflicting mortal wounds from which he died. The defendant entered a plea of not guilty, and his case was tried before a jury which found him guilty of murder in the first degree. At the close of the government's case, the defendant moved for a dismissal of the information on the ground that the government had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had killed Stevens with deliberation and premeditation. The government opposed this motion, and it was denied by the district court after a brief oral argument. After the jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder, he moved for a judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The district court denied this motion, and defendant was sentenced to a mandatory life term. 14 V.I.C. § 923(a). This appeal followed.

A brief summary of the evidence presented in this case is appropriate:

At about 4:30 a.m. on April 30, 1971, the defendant shot and killed Keith Stevens outside of the Lindberg Bay Beach Club ("Beach Club") on St. Thomas. The defendant testified at trial that he shot Stevens, but he claimed that he did so in self-defense because he was being "nicked" or "cut." The homicide took place during "carnival" festivities, and the defendant apparently had not slept for nearly twenty-four hours and had consumed several drinks during the evening. Nevertheless, it does not appear that he was intoxicated. At the time of the shooting, the defendant, a Marine veteran, was employed as a police officer by the government of the Virgin Islands. He was not on duty when the homicide occurred nor was he in any way acting in his capacity as a policeman.

The defendant testified that he did not know Stevens, and that they bumped into each other as the defendant was entering the Beach Club through what is primarily an exit while Stevens was coming out. The defendant stated that he tried to apologize, but that Stevens insulted him with foul language. The defendant then said that he attempted to identify himself as a policeman, whereupon Stevens attacked him with a sharp object and the defendant protected himself by shooting Stevens. The defendant testified that he could not remember any details of the shooting except that he believed his life was in danger. After the shooting, the defendant placed the gun by the body, handcuffed himself and asked to be taken to the Fort.*fn1 He was driven there by two friends named Watkins and Callender, but he entered the Fort alone. When he presented himself at the front desk, he told Lieutenant Norman that a man had tried to cut him and that he, the defendant, shot him. Lieutenant Norman testified that certain parts of the defendant's tee shirt were torn and that he had scratches on his shoulder and chest. The defendant was then taken to a local hospital where he was treated for "multiple superficial abrasions and lacerations of the left shoulder, chest and back."

While the defendant's story might be persuasive standing alone, the prosecution in this case presented a very different view of the facts surrounding the homicide.

One government witness, Louis Morales, testified that just prior to the shooting the defendant was "sitting on the left front fender" of Morales' Volkswagen which was parked in front of a door at the Beach Club. Morales was standing just to the left of his Volkswagen. Morales stated that he observed the defendant draw a pistol and shoot Keith Stevens, whom Morales knew, as Stevens was emerging from the Beach Club eating a chicken leg. Morales testified that the defendant fired two shots into Stevens, that Stevens leaned up against a pole, that the defendant shot Stevens again, that Stevens fell to the ground, that the defendant shot him twice more, paused, and then shot him again.

A second government witness, Yvonne Warner, was sitting in the front seat of Morales' Volkswagen when the shooting took place. She testified that she heard two or three firecracker-like noises, and that she then saw the defendant with a gun firing at Stevens who was on the ground. Miss Warner said that she saw the defendant sitting on the front fender of the Volkswagen, but it is unclear from her testimony whether this observation was made before or during the shooting. Miss Warner also stated that she did not see the defendant and Stevens engage in any conversation prior to the shooting.

A third person who witnessed the homicide was Michael Springer, a line dispatcher for the local Power Authority, who was attending a dance at the Beach Club. Springer testified that he was standing outside the Beach Club when he heard a shot, saw Stevens fall to the ground, and then saw the defendant fire two or three more shots at Stevens. Springer also said that the defendant fired at least one shot while sitting or leaning on the fender of a car.

The only witness who observed any contact between the defendant and Stevens was a Mrs. Eleanor Wallace. She testified that as she was leaving the Beach Club around 4:30 a.m., she saw the two men standing in the doorway, and she overheard one of them say, "I said you brushed on me," or something to that effect. She walked on toward a parking lot, and about two minutes later heard what she thought was a shot.

Although the defendant claims that he was cut and that his shirt was torn by Stevens, nobody noticed this until the defendant presented himself to Lieutenant Norman at the Fort. Instead, several witnesses described his physical appearance after the shooting, and all denied seeing any torn shirt or injuries to the body. Even the two men who drove the defendant to the Fort, but who dropped him off at the front gate and let him enter by himself, stated that they had not seen any blood or other sign of injury. In addition, another witness, Enard F. Frett, testified that after the shooting he heard the defendant ask a police officer named "Cornel" if he had "anything sharp." Cornel allegedly replied that the only sharp thing which he had was his ...

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