Mount Pleasant family seeks justice in St. Maarten
Finley King of Mount Pleasant will hop a plane today to join other members of his family on the sun-splashed island of St. Maarten.
Unlike other travelers this time of year, the Kings aren’t visiting the island for spring break, white sandy beaches or the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.
Theirs is a journey for justice.
Six months ago, their relatives, Michael and Thelma King of Mount Pleasant, were found stabbed to death in their beach-front condo in what police say was a robbery gone bad.
On Tuesday, the three men charged in the killings will stand trial in what is expected to be a closely watched affair in the tiny Dutch territory. The grisly murders sparked heated debate about crime in St. Maarten as ripples of grief stretched from the island to South Carolina.
If convicted, the trio faces the possibility of life in prison, Solicitor General Taco Stein said. St. Maarten does not have the death penalty.
The Kings’ relatives have been on hand for each of the suspects’ court appearances, and some 20 friends and family members are gathering for the trial. They’ve felt a need to make their presence known, to reflect their concern and loss, even though they’ve been unable to understand much of the court dialogue, which has been in Dutch.
Prosecutors outlined their case for the family and worked to educate them in the intricacies of the Dutch legal system, which is quite different from our own. And islanders, from the prime minister on down, have gone out of their way to show them kindness and support.
“It’s been a lot, dealing with not only their deaths but the legal proceedings as well,” said Finley King, Michael’s younger brother. “But (the authorities) have done a real good job of coaching us in how the law works and how the proceedings work.”
His brother, Todd King of Columbia, agreed. “From Day 1, they have done a fantastic job educating us and telling us what to expect.”
No jury involved
All three suspects will be tried at once, and the proceeding is expected to last up to two days. The entire proceeding will be conducted in Dutch, but an English interpreter will be on hand to translate.
No jury involved
Under the Dutch system, the case will be presented to a judge who will render a verdict at later date, likely in early May. No jury is involved and witnesses are few, with much of the proceeding revolving around written statements and evidence investigators have amassed, Stein said.
“It is a little bit different than the trials you see in the United States,” he said.
While closely following the case, the family also banded together to see that Mike’s and Thelma’s dream of opening a rum factory came to fruition. The couple had invested in the rum business of close island friends Topper and Melanie Daboul, and together they planned to produce and sell Topper’s Rhum beyond St., Maarten,
With help from the Kings’ family, the first shipment of the flavored rum arrived in South Carolina in January, and plans for nationwide distribution are underway.
For the couple’s relatives, the endeavor was rather therapeutic, allowing them to work together as a family and focus on something positive, Finley King said.
His brother, Todd, said the work has brought them great satisfaction. “It’s like carrying the torch for them and carrying their dreams and wishes forward.”
Michael and Thelma King were part-time residents of St. Maarten and owned a condominium in Toler’s Cove in Mount Pleasant. Their South Carolina connections extended from East Cooper to Columbia, where they grew up.
Michael King was a retired insurance executive who later started a successful label printing company in Blythewood.
He and his wife fell in love with St. Maarten, a 16-square-mile territory with about 50,000 inhabitants that shares a small island with the French dependency of St. Martin.
They bought a second home there and invested in rental property on the island.
It all came to an end when they were found dead Sept. 21 inside their condo at the Ocean Club Resort.
Prosecutor Hans Mos has said Thelma King, 57, was found tied to a chair, and Michael King, 53, was lying on the floor, partially over an overturned chair. Both had been stabbed to death.
Island police arrested the first suspect two days after the killings. Meyshane Kemar Johnson, a 28-year-old Jamaican, was reportedly in the country illegally, working as a security guard.
Soon after Johnson’s arrest, police detained 17-year-old Jeremiah Chevon Mills and Jamal Jefferson Woolford, a 20-year-old Guyanese national, in the killings, authorities said.
Rumors and speculation swirled around the crime, with some reports suggesting that the Kings were slain in a murder-for-hire plot or in connection with their rum business.
Prosecutors dismissed the reports as ludicrous, and they maintain that the evidence indicates the slayings stemmed from a robbery.
“That is still our assumption,” Stein said. “I haven’t heard any other motive mentioned.”
Authorities said they found Michael King’s credit cards and cellphone inside a getaway car used in the robbery of an island Chinese restaurant, to which the three suspects also have been tied.
Johnson has confessed to his role in the killings, and the other suspects have also provided statements, authorities have said.
The trial was initially scheduled for Jan. 22 but was postponed so psychiatric evaluations of the suspects could be conducted.
Still, the case is going to trial much more quickly than it would at home, where murder cases can take two or three years to reach the docket.
The anticipated one- or two-day duration also stands in stark contrast to many U.S. murder trials, including the current Jodi Arias trial in Arizona, which has now dragged on for more than 40 days.
Another interesting facet of the Dutch legal system was a gathering last month in which the three suspects participated in a re-enactment of the killings at the scene of the crime.
The proceeding, which was closed to the public, was attended by defense attorneys, prosecutors, police and the judge.
It reportedly took place under heavy security, with a SWAT team and the island coast guard close by.
Such reconstructions are held so that authorities can corroborate the information offered by suspects and gauge the veracity of their accounts, Stein said. “We look to see whether their statements corroborate each other,” he said.
Todd King said the prosecution went to a lot of time and expense conducting the reconstruction, as well as thoroughly investigating the case.
“They were making sure they did this right,” he said, “and we saw that as very favorable.”