A High Court judge ordered on Friday that Earl “Bob” Hodge and Roberto “Tico” Harrigan, who are accused of participating in a Caribbean-based drug trafficking organisation, should not be extradited to the United States to face charges.
The two were released from custody immediately after the ruling.
Last November, Magistrate Shawn Innocent ruled that there was a case for the duo’s extradition. The ruling came at least six years after the US first sought Messrs. Hodge and Harrigan on suspicion of drug smuggling.
But last week, High Court Judge Godfrey Smith ruled in their favour.
In fighting the extradition, the applicants argued, among other points, that they are citizens of the Virgin Islands, that their alleged offences are of a “VI nature,” that they can be effectively tried in the territory, and that if extradited they are “likely to receive long, disproportionate sentences,” the court judgment read.
‘The race factor’
One section of Friday’s judgment, headlined “the race factor,” also focused on the applicants’ race and how it could affect their sentencing in the US.
The applicants cited a report from the US Sentencing Commission, titled “Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report.”
According to the judgment, the report concluded that in the US “black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated white male offenders,” adding that “black male drug offenders received sentences that were 17.7 percent longer than white male drug offenders.”
Mr. Smith, the VI justice, found the report compelling.
“I am obliged to conclude that there is credible evidence that there is a risk of prejudice at the sentencing stage by reason of race if the applicants are extradited to the United States,” he concluded.
Though Mr. Smith acknowledged “a great public interest in the VI honouring its obligations” under its extradition treaty with the US, he ultimately sided with Messrs. Hodge and Harrigan.
“Taken together, all of these circumstances make an overwhelming case that, at this juncture, it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite them to the United States and a disproportionate interference with their constitutional rights,” he said.
Defence attorneys Patrick Thompson and Ben Cooper represented Mr. Harrigan, and Queen’s Counsel Edward Fitzgerald represented Mr. Hodge.
Earlier failed attempts
Messrs. Hodge and Harrigan — both of whom have strongly denied wrongdoing — were first arrested in 2011 on drug smuggling charges. They were accused of helping to arrange for cocaine to be flown from South America and dropped in VI waters.
The US Justice Department alleged that the US was intended to be the destination for the drugs, and sought to extradite them.
However, since then the defendants successfully fought two separate extradition orders via judicial review hearings in the High Court.
Justice Albert Redhead ruled in 2012 that they should stand trial in the VI because the offence allegedly took place here, and the VI Constitution guarantees them a fair trial in front of their peers.
Mr. Redhead also stated that there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that the drugs were bound for the US.
Shortly after Mr. Redhead’s decision, US authorities claimed that they had new evidence in the case, and former Governor Boyd McCleary signed an order to proceed with a second extradition hearing for the new evidence to be heard before a magistrate.
Defence attorneys challenged this order in High Court on several grounds, and Justice Vicki Ann Ellis ruled in 2014 that the order was improperly executed because Mr. McCleary failed to “genuinely exercise his own deliberate discretion in the matter.”
On Feb. 7, 2017, US officials issued a new extradition order and the two men were arrested again, though Mr. Innocent subsequently granted them bail.
Attorney General Baba Aziz is off island this week, according to a woman who answered the phone at the AG’s Chambers on Tuesday, and acting AG Joanne Williams-Roberts did not respond to requests for comment on whether the office plans to appeal the decision.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kim Hollis said her office “will be carefully considering the judgment, and all options will be considered.”