A former V.I. police officer who sexually assaulted a 15-year-old St. Croix runaway has had one of his convictions vacated, and the case will be remanded to the Superior Court to investigate possible juror misconduct, according to a V.I. Supreme Court opinion filed Wednesday.
Former officer Jose Rodriguez was arrested in May 2007 and charged with several crimes, including first-degree rape and kidnapping.
Rodriguez was charged after he and other officers were sent to locate a teenage girl who had run away from a girls’ group home. The girl, who had recently been transferred from the Youth Rehabilitation Center to the group home, told police that Rodriguez didn’t alert the other officers to her presence. Instead, she said he told her that she would have to submit to him sexually if she didn’t want to be sent back to the YRC, which she described as “staying behind bars,” according to court records.
The girl told police that Rodriguez touched her breast before leaving with the other officers, and returned to the home about an hour later. The girl reported that Rodriguez took her to an overgrown area and raped her before returning her to the home.
The victims’ friends persuaded her to contact the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, and the incident was reported to police, according to court records. The girl then went to Luis Hospital, where she was examined by doctors and interviewed.
The assault was reported April 23, 2007, and Rodriguez was arrested on a warrant on May 2, 2007.
An FBI report issued in 2008 identified Rodriguez as the source of the semen taken from the girl. But the trial was delayed until 2015, at which point the DNA technician who authored the report was no longer available to testify, according to court records.
The matter the DNA evidence — which jurors were not allowed to hear — was the subject of a report that appeared on the last day of Rodriguez’s trial.
On May 13, 2015, a jury convicted Rodriguez of kidnapping for rape; first-degree rape; first-degree unlawful sexual contact; child abuse; and interfering with an officer discharging his duty.
Rodriguez moved for acquittal and a new trial, arguing that the prosecution failed to prove that he had engaged in “forced sexual intercourse” and a newspaper article was unfairly prejudicial. He also submitted a letter to the court in September 2015, in which he said he observed jurors talking and holding newspapers on the final day of his trial.
The Superior Court held a hearing in October 2015 and acquitted Rodriguez of first-degree rape, explaining that the prosecution failed to prove that the girl’s “resistance was prevented by fear of immediate and great bodily harm.” But the court found that his threat to return the girl to YRC if she didn’t submit to his sexual demands “was sufficient to sustain his conviction for kidnapping” and the sexual contact and child abuse convictions, according to records.
The court also found that while jurors may have read the newspaper he raised questions about, there was no evidence that they’d “read that particular article pertaining to the [suppressed] evidence.”
The court sentenced Rodriguez to 20 years in prison for kidnapping, 7.5 years for first-degree unlawful sexual contact, 10 years for child abuse, and one year and a $1,000 fine for interfering with an officer discharging his duty.
Rodriguez filed an appeal to the V.I. Supreme Court.
In the opinion filed Wednesday, the justices found that there was sufficient evidence to sustain his convictions for first-degree unlawful sexual contact and interfering with an officer discharging his duty, and prosecutors proved that Rodriguez hid the girl from his fellow officers so he could assault her through coercion.
“We conclude that a reasonable jury could find that Rodriguez used his position of authority to sexually touch” the victim, according to the opinion.
While the justices affirmed his conviction for interfering with an officer, the $1,000 fine imposed during sentencing was double that allowed under the law, and the justices remanded that conviction for sentencing.
The justices also found the Superior Court erred in the way it instructed jurors on how to consider the kidnapping charge, “and by denying Rodriguez’s motion for acquittal and a new trial without holding an evidentiary hearing to determine whether juror misconduct occurred,” according to the opinion.
The justices vacated the kidnapping conviction, as wells as the lower court’s 2015 order rejecting Rodriguez’s arguments related to juror bias.
“On remand, the court must conduct an evidentiary hearing on juror bias, resentence Rodriguez for interfering with an officer discharging his duty, and if requested by the People, conduct a new trial on the charge of kidnapping,” according to the opinion.
Given that the 20-year kidnapping sentence was vacated, Rodriguez has already served more time behind bars than his sentences for the remaining convictions, and a judge could order him to be released depending on whether prosecutors move for a new trial.