Is a teardrop tattoo the mark of a murderer?
That question, which was raised by the prosecution during the 2017 trial of C’Quan Celestine, was the subject of intense scrutiny by justices on the V.I. Supreme Court who are considering whether to uphold Celestine’s attempted murder conviction.
Celestine, 25, is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence after he shot a woman in the face and left her for dead on Hull Bay Road on the North Side of St. Thomas four years ago.
Celestine was arrested in the shooting a year later and convicted by a jury in May 2017 of second-degree attempted murder and six related crimes.
The victim testified that she was riding in a car with Celestine and two other men when they pulled over and stopped. Celestine demanded the woman perform oral sex on him and shot her in the face when she refused. The men drove off and a couple who found the woman by the roadside got her medical assistance that saved her life.
The justices heard oral argument in Celestine’s appeal on Oct. 8 from Appellate Public Defender Kele Onyejekwe and Assistant Attorney General Dionne Sinclair.
Onyejekwe argued that the victim’s identification of Celestine was unreliable, and the prosecution tried to unfairly sway jurors by implying Celestine had previously killed someone else because he had a teardrop tattoo.
“I don’t see how in God’s name this identification could be an issue,” Associate Justice Ive Arlington Swan said. Celestine and the victim were sitting in the backseat together on their way to a party and “there is nothing in this record that says he concealed his face. My God, she’s like, less than three feet away from him for the longest while.”
Swan said that while he has no doubt the victim knew who shot her, “what I see as an issue is why the court ever allowed this thing about teardrops and murderers. That is convoluted.”
The prosecution asked a police detective testifying during the trial what it means when someone has a teardrop tattoo under their eye, and “he said it means that person has killed someone, has murdered someone,” Chief Justice Rhys Hodge said.
“And in addition he said that witnesses couldn’t come forward because they were afraid of Mr. Celestine, before informing us that Celestine had a same-sex relationship with somebody else in the car, not the victim,” Onyejekwe said.
Associate Justice Maria Cabret dismissed Onyejekwe’s implication that the prosecution tried to unfairly prejudice jurors against Celestine by eliciting testimony of his homosexuality, and “there’s nothing on this record that indicates that you had a homophobic jury.”
But the justices repeatedly returned to the question of the teardrop tattoo.
“I’m just amazed that they would have allowed something as inflammatory as a remark that had nothing to do with any of the credible evidence,” Swan said. “Why didn’t somebody say something about that, or ask the court to give an instruction to the jury?”
“The teardrop tattoo is our problem. The detective testified that because Mr. Celestine had a teardrop tattoo, that he had murdered someone,” Onyejekwe said. “The officer maintained that this citizen had committed murder, and he used the word murder.”
The judge in the case did not instruct jurors to disregard the comments, but Hodge noted that Celestine’s defense attorneys engaged in substantial cross-examination of the detective to show jurors that many people have teardrop tattoos for a variety of reasons — not just murderers.
Sinclair argued that while the testimony could be considered unfortunate and potentially prejudicial, “in the totality of the circumstances do I think that it impacted the jury? I do not.”
She added that the fact a judge did not instruct jurors to disregard the comments shows that it “wasn’t as alarming in person as it is on the record.”
Hodge again noted that the trial included testimony that an anonymous caller identified Celestine as the shooter, but said they didn’t want to get involved.
The prosecutor asked the detective why, and he said “it was because he believed he was afraid of the defendant,” Hodge said. “So, you have a murderer identified from a tattoo who is you know, scaring people away from coming forward.”
“The fact of the matter is, the defendant was on trial for attempted murder. I don’t know if saying that a witness was scared would be surprising to any jury, or prejudicial to any jury,” Sinclair said. “The charges here are quite strong and quite violent in nature. So, that somebody would be fearful, I don’t think it’s any kind of surprise.”
While criminal histories play an important factor in sentencing, prosecutors at trial are prohibited from presenting evidence of a defendant’s prior crimes that might unfairly prejudice jurors.
Celestine’s criminal history is extensive, and provided the basis for V.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Dunston to classify him as a “habitual offender” eligible for a potential life prison sentence at his July 2017 sentencing.
Assistant Attorney General Eugene James Connor Jr. said during the hearing that in his four years of being a prosecutor, “he’s my worst, he’s a one-man crime spree.”
Before the Hull Bay Road shooting, Celestine had been arrested on charges that he shot at a witness in a previous murder case on two separate occasions in September 2011. He went to trial in that case in 2012 for attempted murder, but a jury convicted him of only third-degree assault and he agreed to a four-year prison sentence under a deal with prosecutors.
While in a Florida prison for the 2012 assault conviction, Connor said Celestine was convicted of felony battery on a law enforcement officer on June 30, 2015.
It’s unclear when and why Celestine was released from custody, but Connor said that “not even two months later” he shot the woman in the face and left her to die.
On March 5, 2016, Celestine was arrested at King Airport by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and charged with federal drug crimes after being found with more than a kilogram of marijuana. Connor said that case was dismissed after a woman he was with said the drugs were hers.
He was arrested on June 3, 2016, for the shooting on Hull Bay Road, and has been in custody ever since.
Connor said Celestine is “an extreme danger to the community,” and should be locked up in the interest of public safety.
The victim, who testified against Celestine at trial, was defiant in her statement to the man that nearly took her life when he fired a bullet that entered her head just above her eye and exited through her neck.
“I am not afraid of you. I proved that by taking the stand, looking at you face to face, testifying in this courtroom,” the victim said. “I am a strong woman, a fighter,” she added, “you picked the wrong one to mess with, and that’s all I have to say to you.”