April 3, 2003 – Attorney General Iver Stridiron found himself in the witness stand at length Thursday as the lone official testifying before the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, the committee chair, wanted answers to questions concerning what she termed the territory's "serious crime wave." She said the V.I. homicide rate is alarming, crimes against women and children are destabilizing the territory, and sexual predators are destroying the sense of peace and security within the islands.
"The crime problem is tearing away at the fabric of our community," Berry told Stridiron. "This problem affects our residents, investors and visitors."
Stridiron gave a presentation, with slide illustrations, on the functions and staffing of the V.I. Justice Department, highlighting accomplishments and, occasionally, citing shortcomings.
Berry said the public has four major complaints about the criminal justice system: the timeliness in dealing with felony cases, a "double standard" in prosecuting cases, the competence of the Attorney General's Office staff, and recidivism — the return of convicted felons after serving their sentences to a life of crime.
Addressing the timeliness issue, Berry told Stridiron: "The public perceives a weakness."
Stridiron defended his department. "There is no weakness" in the time frame bringing cases to the court for prosecution within his office, he said. However, "there are instances, where evidence is sent off island and not returned in a timely manner, or when witnesses become unavailable." He said "the most daunting" challenges to law enforcement are "the absence of witnesses and delayed forensic reports."
Berry asked the attorney general about threats of violence keeping witnesses from testifying.
"That, bluntly, is a crock," Stridiron replied. "I can count on one finger the times witnesses have been threatened."
He said he took great pride in the case of a man who was sentenced to 55 years in prison recently in a rape case. "The witness cooperated, and it was 100 percent successful," he said.
Stridiron told Berry there is no "double standard" in prosecuting cases, that all persons are treated alike, "V.I.P. or not." He challenged anyone to bring to Berry's attention any instance of favored treatment in the four years he has been attorney general.
Berry asked him if he conferred with the governor on cases. Stridiron replied: "The governor doesn't want to know anything about that."
He also defended his staff's competence. "We have a conviction rate of between 85 percent and 95 percent of the cases filed by the Police Department and prosecuted by us," he said.
As for recidivism, Stridiron said he is aware of a lack of support for released inmates, although the jails "make every effort to rehabilitate the inmates with vocational training." He added, however, that his department has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department to develop and operate an "Inmate Community Re-entry Program."
'The governor is my boss — I support him'
Senators listened quietly to Stridiron's presentation, but had numerous questions when it was over. Berry asked: "How do you feel about the perception in the community that you are too political? Many have commented that you have gone too far." She was referring to several radio talk show appearances Stridiron made last fall in support of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's re-election in the final days of the gubernatorial campaign.
"The governor is my boss, and based on decades of knowing him — he taught me in junior and senior high school — I support him 100 percent," Stridiron said. "I've become the point guard, called upon to defend the governor. When I hear something and don't respond, that perception becomes a reality with no basis in fact."
He was asked by Sens. Louis Hill and Berry about his views on whether the attorney general should be appointed or elected. Hill said many people are uncomfortable with Stridiron's comments on radio talk shows. "It exacerbates the problem," Hill said. "Wouldn't a six-year term be a method of making the A.G. more independent?"
Stridiron said it doesn't really matter. "It all boils down to how the A.G. and the governor get along," he said.
Sen. Raymond Richards, announcing that "It's now high noon in Dodge City," asked Stridiron about the perception that there is friction between the Attorney General's Office and the Police Department. Saying that such a view is "clearly a perception," Stridiron said his department "had a good working relationship with Franz Christian; there was never a problem."
Christian was named Police commissioner early in Turnbull's first administration and served until last month, when the governor relieved him of duty.
Richards asked about the number of unsolved criminal cases, citing a recent instance on St. Croix of a man apparently moving with his children to the Dominican Republic after the man's wife was shot and killed. The wounded woman had identified her assailant; the man she named was taken into custody, but charges were dropped after the husband left the island.
Stridiron said with the husband gone, the Justice Department had no witnesses and had to drop the charges — an answer that didn't seem to please many senators.
"What about gun control?" asked Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who sponsored legislation toughening penalties for crimes involving guns that was enacted last year. "What about the 13-year-old girl on St. Croix who will probably be paralyzed for the rest of her life?" That reference was to a bystander shot in a drive-by shooting in a housing community on March 15 who was reported paralyzed from the waist down.
Hansen also raised concerns about what he termed the many plea bargains the government accepts in criminal cases involving firearms.
'Lottery records are open documents'
Sen. Celestino A. White asked Stridiron if he had advised the V.I. Lottery executive director, Austin Andrews, about responding to subpoenas of financial records and other documents issued by the Senate Finance Committee. The committee chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, said on Tuesday that two weeks after the subpoenas were issued, he had yet to receive a response.
(See "V.I. Lottery ignoring subpoenas, senator says".)
"I reminded him lottery records are open documents," Stridiron responded. "I've advised them to be as forthright as possible."
White then asked Stridiron if he had written a letter on March 27 to legislative post auditor Anneta Adams Heyliger chastising her for her letter requesting documents from the V.I. Lottery Office and invoking the subpoena power of the Legislature. Stridiron said he, indeed, had done so.
"Please do not adopt the posture that the Post Audit Division of the Legislature is all-powerful, and your directives must be strictly adhered to by everyone," Stridiron told Heyliger in the letter.
White asked Stridiron to "tell in pure language" whether the Legislature has the power to subpoena. Stridiron agreed that it does.
White reminded Stridiron of the 24th Legislature's use of subpoenas, including having police officers bring witnesses to the Senate floor. White said he thought it was Donastorg's perception that "something was fishy" in the lottery office. Stridiron said he wasn't knowledgeable about "Donastorg's perceptions."
Hill asked Stridiron about his serving on numerous government boards, inquiring if that didn't take up too muc
h of his time. "Some are concerned it has limited your effectiveness as attorney general," Hill said.
Stridiron said that the attorney general by virtue of office is supposed to serve on more than 20 boards and commissions, but he has narrowed his participation down to the boards of the Port Authority, Water and Power Authority and Law Enforcement Planning Commission. "I only participate in what the governor needs me to do," he said. "Most of the time I am the person to make the quorum."
Territorial Court Presiding Judge Maria Cabret also had been scheduled to testify before the committee on Thursday but was unable to attend.
Committee members present were Sens. Berry, Carlton Dowe and Hansen. Sens. David Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell were absent. Sens. Hill, Richards and White, who are not committee members, also attended.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.