A U.S. law enforcement agent's murder trial opened Monday with defense lawyers challenging the credibility of the key witness — the slain man's girlfriend — and prosecutors accusing him of using excessive force when he intervened in a domestic dispute.
Federal authorities, who conducted their own investigation and determined the shooting was justified, said they are monitoring the highly politicized trial closely and warned that if William Clark, of Rochester, New York, is convicted, it could have a chilling effect on how their agents respond to crime in the U.S. Caribbean territory.
Clark, a 35-year-old agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, sat quietly as the judge read the charges stemming from the September 2008 killing of his neighbor Marcus Sukow in St. Thomas.
Clark has pleaded not guilty to four counts including second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
"No one is above the law in the U.S. Virgin Islands," prosecutor Claude Walker said.
In opening arguments, Walker told jurors that on the day of the shooting, Sukow talked about marriage to his girlfriend, Marguerite Duncan, over brunch at an Irish Pub. She said she was not interested.
The couple returned to the apartment complex and, according to police records, an enraged Sukow threatened to retrieve a gun from his apartment and blow off her head.
As he went to the apartment, defense lawyers say, Duncan asked Clark for help and got inside his car.
Sukow returned with a large, heavy flashlight and headed toward the car, where Clark was sitting with the door open and one foot on the ground, according to court records.
What happened next is a matter for the jury to unravel.
Defense lawyers and some witnesses say Sukow aggressively lunged at Clark with the flashlight, and the shooting was in self-defense. His attorneys note that Sukow consumed enough beer at the pub that a medical examiner found he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.29 percent — nearly four times the DWI limit in many U.S. jurisdictions.
However, the prosecution says witnesses say Sukow was standing still with his arms at his side when he was shot. Meanwhile, prosecutors note that Clark shot Sukow five times, allegedly including once in the back, and call that an irresponsible use of deadly force.
"There were many options available to deal with that situation," Walker said.
Defense attorney Rudolph Acree disputed that one bullet hit Sukow's back, saying it pierced the victim's side as he hefted the flashlight to use it as a weapon.
Acree accused Duncan of turning against Clark after the fact.
"Much of what Marguerite Duncan is going to tell you is a story ... that changed almost every single time she talked to somebody," Acree told jurors.
Duncan appeared close with Sukow's parents and his 17-year-old daughter as she chatted with them during a break. They declined comment.
Rachel Morrison, an attorney for the family, said Sukow was an environmental biologist who moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands a year before he was killed. She declined further comment except to say that people should wait to hear more facts of the case.
The trial is expected to last 10 days.
Some of Clark's supporters believe U.S. Virgin Islands police pursued the case in retaliation for federal corruption investigations targeting the department. The ATF pulled its agents out a month after the shooting.
Joseph Occhipinti, director of the National Police Defense Foundation based in New Jersey, traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands to monitor the trial and said that regardless of the verdict, federal agents already are questioning whether they should get involved if they see someone commit a crime in the territory.
"There are so many implications of this case on law enforcement in general," he said. "There are a lot of liability concerns."
Several congressmen have called Clark a hero for intervening in the domestic dispute, and several demonstrations have been held in the U.S. in his support. On Monday, the FBI Agents Association issued a statement asking that the judge dismiss the charges against Clark.
"Federal agents remaining on the island are not responding to assist local law enforcement out of concern that their officers may not be able to perform their duties safely," FBI Agents Association president Konrad Motyka said.