Judge dismisses case against ATF agent in USVI

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 9:10 PM
Judge dismisses case against ATF agent in USVI

A U.S. federal agent accused of killing his neighbor walked out of a U.S. Virgin Islands courtroom a free man Thursday after a judge threw out the case on a technicality that caught many by surprise.

William Clark, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter after the fatal shooting of Marcus Sukow on Sept. 7, 2008.

Clark, a 35-year-old agent from Rochester, New York, had intervened in a domestic dispute between two neighbors, Sukow and his girlfriend, Margie Duncan.

U.S. law enforcement officials, including the FBI, had requested the charges be dropped and warned that the case has had a chilling effect on federal agents in the U.S. territory worried about liability in responding to crimes. A U.S. federal investigation of the shooting found that it was justified.

Judge Edgar Ross dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning his ruling cannot be appealed. The trial had begun Monday.

Defense attorney Mark Schamel said the case was dismissed on a technicality: that proper procedure was not followed in identifying Sukow's body to the medical examiner.

"Regardless of the basis for the decision, the outcome was the right one," Schamel said. The attorney general of the Virgin Islands owes William Clark and the people of the Virgin Islands an apology."

The prosecutors in the case declined a request for comment through the island's Justice Department spokeswoman, Sara Lezama.

"The government is reviewing Judge Ross' decision to determine its next course of action," Lezama said, declining further comment.

Rachel Morrison, a laywer for Sukow's family, said his parents and 17-year-old daughter were shocked and devastated.

"It was very unusual for the judge to take it out of the jury's hands," Morrison said. "(Sukow) certainly was not perfect. He certainly displayed really bad behavior, but we don't believe he deserved to be judged and executed without due process."

U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Vincent Frazer said in a statement that the judge dismissed the case because prosecutors did not prove Sukow's body was the same one presented to the medical examiner.

Frazer said the judge excluded the pertinent documents from evidence, a move that allowed for a dismissal that he called unprecedented and disappointing.

"We respectfully disagree with the Judge's ruling," Frazer said. "We stand by the position that the outcome of this case should have been decided by a jury of Virgin Islands residents, not by a single judge."

Only six witnesses testified before the case was dismissed, including Duncan, who denied she was in an abusive relationship and maintained that she never asked Clark for help the day of the shooting.

She said she and Sukow had gone to an Irish pub for brunch that day, and that he wanted to talk about getting married after they returned to her St. Thomas apartment.

She said she was not interested in the conversation and left to get the morning paper to avoid an argument.

Duncan disputed the testimony of other witnesses who said Clark used a heavy flashlight to hit her car as the argument escalated outside. She said the dents on both sides of her car were caused by previous accidents.

Witnesses said she asked Clark for help as he was leaving the apartment to go to the gym and saw the couple fighting.

Duncan testified that she got into Clark's car only because she wanted a ride to the guard's booth to pick up the newspaper, not because she asked him to get involved.

Sukow approached that car with a heavy flashlight.

Some witnesses said he lunged at Clark with the flashlight and dented the agent's car before he was shot five times. Other said Sukow stood still with his hands by his side.

A medical examiner found that Sukow's blood alcohol level was 0.29, almost four times the legal limit in some U.S. states.

Duncan also testified that about three weeks after the shooting, she sent a letter to detectives disavowing statements she made at the scene, saying they were untrue.

Clark's supporters, including several congressmen, had praised him for getting involved in a domestic dispute.

"As I have said from the beginning, Will is a hero, not a murderer," U.S. Rep. Chris Lee of New York said in a statement issued Thursday. "Our law enforcement officers need to know that they will not be prosecuted for taking lawful actions to protect the innocent, whether they are on duty or off."

Clark could have faced up to 20 years in prison if he had been convicted.