Re: Suicide at Sea and captain charged
Here's the (likely) final word from the V.I. newspaper:
St. John captain acquitted of manslaughter
By SUZANNE CARLSON Daily News Staff
St. John charter Capt. Richard Smith was acquitted of manslaughter Wednesday after a federal judge found that prosecutors had failed to produce evidence sufficient to support the criminal charge against him, abruptly ending his jury trial after two days of emotional testimony.
The family of the deceased, David Pontious, were visibly devastated by U.S. District Judge Curtis Gomez’s decision, and his mother sobbed as she left the courtroom. The ruling is not subject to appeal and the statute of limitations for a civil lawsuit has expired.
“This is not an easy decision,” Gomez said. “It is not a light thing to do, but under the circumstance, I think the weight of the law doesn’t support the result the government wants.”
Smith, 65, owner of the 43-foot sailing vessel Cimarron, was charged Nov. 2 under what federal prosecutors described as the “Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute” in connection with the Oct. 25, 2015, drowning of Pontious, 54, of Beaufort, S.C., a crew member who was helping transport the Cimarron from North Carolina to St. John.
Two other crew members aboard the Cimarron at the time, Jacob Pepper and Heather Morningstar, testified that Pontious attacked Smith in the midst of a psychotic delusion before jumping overboard approximately 300 miles offshore.
Prosecutors Daniel Huston and Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte argued that Smith was criminally liable for Pontious’s death because he did not stop the Cimarron to search for Pontious.
However, defense attorneys David Cattie and Michael Sheesley argued that Pontious’ mutinous behavior posed a threat to the remaining crew.
“Obviously I’m pleased, I think it was the correct result. Rick and myself, we feel bad for the Pontious family — you never want to have somebody lose a life, which occurred — but I just don’t think Rick did anything criminal, I don’t think he did anything civilly wrong. It was just a terrible circumstance,” Sheesley said.
Cattie agreed that the situation was a tragic anomaly that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense.
“Rick had to make an almost impossible decision,” Cattie said. “You heard what happened on that boat, that’s a nightmare scenario for a captain. Rick certainly had no ill will toward David and didn’t want him to die.”
U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands Gretchen Shappert declined to comment on the case.
Gomez’s decision came after defense attorneys filed a motion for acquittal late Tuesday, arguing that prosecutors had charged Smith under a statute that only applies to vessels engaged in commercial activity.
While Smith used the Cimarron for paid charters at other times, Gomez found that the voyage during which Pontious died did not involve commerce because none of the individuals aboard had paid for the trip and were not compensated as employees.
Pepper testified that he approached Smith about sailing with him to gain offshore experience, and Morningstar said she went on the trip “to do something completely different.”
A third crew member, Candace Martin, also said she went on the trip with Smith because she loved offshore sailing. Martin was unable to complete the journey so she posted an online ad with the Beaufort Yacht Club, to which Pontious responded. Martin left the ship in North Carolina and Pontious took her place.
Crew members testified that Pontious became seasick and severely dehydrated, but Morningstar said he was able to work his scheduled watch at the helm Saturday, ate breakfast and dinner, and his condition seemed to be improving.
The evening of Saturday, Oct. 24, Morningstar testified that Pontious slipped into a delusional state and became progressively more agitated.
“We thought he was kind of turning a corner at that point,” Morningstar said. “Saturday night was when everything started to change.”
Pontious believed the crew had kidnapped him to extort ransom money from his father, and hallucinated a door or portal in the sky, through which he believed was a room full of electronics that would help him get back to reality, according to trial testimony.
When Smith refused to take him to the portal, Pontious punched and choked him, attempting to wrest control of the helm.
Pontius announced to Smith and the other crew that “if you won’t take me there, I’ll go myself,” and jumped overboard at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, according to trial testimony.
He was never seen again.
It’s unclear why Pontious had a psychotic break — his brother Andrew and others indicated that Pontious did not have a history of mental illness and his behavior on board the Cimarron was completely out of character — and Cattie said the reasons for his death will likely remain a mystery.
“Whatever the reason is, his behavior was altered and the result was fatal and it’s a tragedy,” Cattie said.
Prosecutors highlighted the fact that Smith did not deploy an EPIRB remote signaling device, throw a life ring, or stop to engage in a search for Pontious. Smith made contact via radio with a weather router on the morning of Monday, Oct. 26, who summoned the U.S. Coast Guard, which flew a C-130 plane over the Cimarron to establish radio contact and begin the search for Pontious.
Smith did attempt to issue a mayday call via radio after Pontious went overboard, to no avail, and Cattie said his decision not to stop sailing after the chaotic, violent episode was indicative of his concern for his remaining crew.
“He had to make a decision I don’t ever want to have to make,” Cattie said.
Sheesley said that had Pontious not jumped overboard when he did, it’s possible the situation could have resulted in additional deaths.
“Rick had a tough choice to make, he made the right one. It ended up saving Heather and Jacob’s life,” Sheesley said.
In terms of the government’s prosecution, Sheesley said prosecutors expended a “ridiculous” amount of taxpayer money to hire three experts, retain two case agents, and fly numerous witnesses to the territory to testify at trial — all for a case he believes never should have been brought in the first place.
“They have an obligation to know the law, and the law just did not fit the facts,” Sheesley said.
While defense attorneys routinely file a motion for acquittal when prosecutors have finished presenting witnesses, “they are denied almost as a matter of course,” Sheesley said.
The fact that Gomez granted the motion in this case speaks to prosecutors’ lack of evidence, Sheesley said.
“This was part of our case strategy, we knew for months that this law was not applicable to this factual situation and we tailored our examination and evidence to support it,” Sheesley said.
Smith had been facing a possible 10-year prison sentence, and even though he is now officially a free man, his life has forever been altered by the trial, Sheesley said.
“Emotionally, this is massively taxing. It’s essentially bankrupted him,” Sheesley said. “Like any criminal prosecution it has a huge effect on somebody’s life, even when they’re found not guilty.”
— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email
So, we won't get to know how the jury would have sorted all this out. They, unlike us, would have heard and seen the witnesses and judged their credibility accordingly. That aside, I expect the jury's discussions would have been very much like ours here, with the overarching principle being proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, which is an intentionally high hurdle.
I hadn't been aware this was an unpaid crew, who went along because they liked offshore sailing. That being so, I believe Judge Gomez got it right, and the US Attorney got it wrong. Could have been prosecuted under the federal manslaughter statute, one would think. The Seaman's Manslaughter Statute originated from catastrophic boiler explosions and fires on passenger and cargo boats and ships in the mid-1800s, culminating with a disastrous fire, sinking, and loss of life on a New York excursion boat in the East River in 1904.
Lurking behind the decision yesterday may be the judge's recognition that the evidence wasn't that unequivocal, and that the Coast Guard, which normally would be the ones referring a criminal prosecution to the DOJ, did not find probable cause and hence did not refer the case onward. The defense wanted the jury to consider the Coast Guard's informal report, which opined that the captain handled it about as well as was possible under the difficult circumstances, while the prosecution did not want the jury to see it at all.
Last edited by nolatom; 01-10-2019 at 11:20 AM.