A three-judge panel on St. Maarten is expected to rule this month on the appeals of three men convicted in the robbery and killing of a Mount Pleasant couple.
A day-long appeals hearing Thursday on the island capital of Philipsburg functioned like a second trial, with the judges questioning the three suspects about their actions on the day Michael and Thelma King were killed.
The man accused of slitting the couple's throats, 29-year-old Meyshane Johnson, maintained his position that he remembered nothing of the killings, despite prodding from a judge to discuss the inconsistency between that stance and the detailed account he provided to police immediately after his arrest, according to multiple media reports.
"You want a story?" The Daily Herald of St. Maarten quoted Johnson as saying. "I don't have a story, sorry."
The Daily Herald noted that Johnson, who had previously talked of conversing with a giant frog, displayed odd behavior during the proceeding, including making remarks about angels in the courtroom. But an extensive psychological evaluation conducted on Johnson before the appeal found no signs of mental illness and determined that he could be held fully responsible for his actions, the newspaper and the St. Martin News Network reported.
Johnson's co-defendants, Jeremiah Chevon Mills, 18, and Jamal Jefferson Woolford, 21, also claimed during the hearing to have trouble remembering key details of the killings and offered accounts that differed from what they told police and testified to during their two-day trial in April, the two media outlets reported. For example, both men no longer recalled seeing Johnson with a knife just before the Kings were killed, the Daily Herald reported.
The three men are seeking to reduce the sentences they received at trial. Johnson received a life term for his actions, while Mills and Woolford received 28 years and 22 years, respectively. Island prosecutors, however, are fighting to keep those sentences in place.
Several of the Kings' friends and relatives attended the appeal hearing. Todd King, Michael King's brother, said he heard nothing new except more dubious claims of amnesia from the convicted men. He said the panel of judges, who are expected to issue their ruling Dec. 30, seemed well-prepared and far from naive.
Mills' and Woolford's lawyers have argued that their clients deserve less time behind bars because they were less culpable than Johnson and have admitted to their roles in a robbery earlier that night and to burglarizing the Kings' home.
Johnson' lawyer, Brenda Brooks, has put forth allegations of police brutality against her client and prosecutorial missteps in regard to a court summons for Johnson. Prosecutors have said the summons issue has already been addressed by the courts.
Brooks also argued that a life sentence is not justified because it goes against the grain of Dutch law, which holds to the concept that a "ray of hope" should remain for a prisoner while incarcerated. St. Maarten follows Dutch law.
Brooks has cited a July decision in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life prison terms with no prospect of release were inhumane. The court, ruling on a case involving three convicted murderers in the United Kingdom, found life sentences without parole constituted "inhuman and degrading treatment" and violated article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Brooks also pointed to a November ruling by the Constitutional Court of St. Maarten that nullified the ability to impose life sentences because they do not allow for a possibility for review and the prospect of release.
Prosecutors have maintained that the seriousness of Johnson's crimes warrant a life sentence and that the possibility of a future pardon - however remote - provides the "ray of hope" for release that the human rights treaty mandates.
Taco Stein, the island's solicitor general, also argued during Thursday's appeal that defendants can pursue relief through civil courts, providing another avenue for possible release, The Daily Herald reported.
Johnson, Mills and Woolford happened upon the Kings' Cupecoy villa on Sept. 19, 2012, and decided to rob them after committing another hold-up at a Chinese restaurant that same evening. Prosecutors said Johnson cut Michael King's throat and stabbed him in the back and neck before cutting Thelma King's throat while she was helpless and bound with pieces of a shredded towel.
The suspects are believed to have escaped with about $80,000 in jewelry and cash, authorities said.