The investigation led to the arrest of a U.S. Virgin Islands officer, Francis Williams, who was charged with 11 counts, including first-degree murder, assault, stalking and kidnapping.
The trial was scheduled to begin two and a half years later, on Jan. 10. Then the U.S. federal government shut down.
As with most nonmilitary federal agencies, the appropriations act that funded the Justice Department expired, triggering the partial government shutdown Dec. 22. More than 800,000 government workers either have been furloughed or are working without pay.
The lapse in federal government funding affected the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Justice Department employees involved in criminal investigations and prosecution are among those working without a paycheck.
Days before the Jan. 10 trial date, assistant attorneys general from the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Justice filed a motion with the local St. Croix court. “Due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the People’s control,” they requested a fourth continuance in the Williams murder trial.
“Virtually all of the forensic evidence in this case was processed by scientists and agents attached to the FBI, ATF and the Department of Homeland Security,” prosecutors said in court filings.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, a small federal territory, does not have its own forensic laboratories. It routinely relies on the stateside jurisdiction of the federal government, outsourcing a lot of work and requiring agency employees to testify at trial.
In Williams’s case, crime scene investigators took scrapings and samples from the beach and from Williams’s clothing, car and other belongings. FBI explosives expert David McCollam assessed the burned clothing that was recovered from the victims, and FBI DNA expert Tiffany Smith handled the DNA analysis, testing the evidence to determine whether there was a conclusive match or transfer of hair, fiber or bodily fluids.
Neither expert is funded by the government during the impasse or approved for travel until the shutdown ends.
Law enforcement also collected spent shell casings from the crime scene, and ATF firearms expert Meredith Acosta tested them against Williams’s Glock 22 service weapon.
On Jan. 3, Acosta told prosecutors that “her position at ‘ATF is not funded’ during the shutdown and travel is ‘frozen.’ As a result of the current government shutdown, Ms. Acosta is not able to travel to the Territory to provide testimony until the government shutdown is resolved,” court documents say.
The prosecutors' motion also said Acosta told them she suffered from medical complications, preventing her from traveling for an additional month.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security computer forensics agent Christopher Landi downloaded data from Williams’s cellphone. He was scheduled to travel to the island for his testimony, but he informed prosecutors via email that he no longer had approval because of the shutdown, according to court documents.
The assistant attorneys general and defense attorney Gordon Rhea called Williams’s prosecution “a circumstantial case.”
More than 50 witnesses are expected to testify, but not one observed the murder. Also, according to Rhea, Williams’s DNA was not a positive match. Prosecutors would not independently confirm details of an open case.
Rhea explained the prosecutors' theory as twofold: They allege Williams had a motive because one of the victims was his ex-girlfriend and a shell casing at the scene matched his revolver.
“The feds say the shell casing came from [Williams’s] gun, we say there were faults with the testing methodology,” Rhea said, adding that the ballistics testing is the sole issue in the case.
The partial government shutdown, now in its second month, shows no signs of ending. Harold W.L. Willocks, administrative judge of the Superior Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands, granted the order. He reset the trial for May 13, concluding that justice demanded the adjournment.
Williams, initially held in jail for six months, is on house arrest.
“He was on the police force for at least a decade. Now he can’t work, can’t leave his house. He’s dependent on his family to take care of him and has no income for two and a half years,” Rhea said. “It’s pretty tough.”