A judge has allowed Menelik Petersen to withdraw his guilty plea for the murder of Terrance Moorehead on St. Croix, and he will now go to trial to plead his innocence in the 2015 killing.
V.I. Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady issued the order Tuesday in the case that began about 2 a.m., April 11, 2015, when Moorehead, 55, of Pepper Tree Terrace, was shot and killed in Sunny Isle.
Petersen was arrested a year later on April 15, 2016, and charged with first-degree murder and several related crimes, including robbery, assault and unauthorized possession of a firearm.
Just before he was set to go to trial on Nov. 20, 2019, Petersen pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors and was remanded into custody to await his January sentencing.
Petersen then fired his defense attorney, Michael Joseph, and hired attorney Kye Walker, who filed a motion on Dec. 5 to stay sentencing, along with an affidavit from Petersen’s mother, who said her son has maintained is innocence but took the plea deal after being pressured by Joseph. Joseph has denied any wrongdoing in the case.
At the time he accepted the plea agreement, Petersen was 25 years old with “a sixth-grade education and no prior experience with the criminal justice system,” Walker wrote in a June 2 motion.
Walker also attacked Joseph for not requesting a video that served as the basis of a probable cause finding.
Surveillance video may have shown whether there was a fight before the fatal gunshot, according to the motion, which “could have led to an accidental shooting or a shooting in self-defense,” and might show there was no intent to kill.
Petersen believed he would receive a sentence of five years with credit for time served if he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and was not aware that the judge had the discretion to give him a much longer prison sentence, according to the motion.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Ponteen countered that Petersen “failed to present a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal of his guilty plea,” and that “he understood the consequences of his decision,” according to a response filed August 2. “At best, the defendant has thrown a wide accusatory net, designed to entangle the conduct of his previous counsel, his documented responses during the change of plea hearing, the rules and conduct of the court, and the criminal intent of the ‘person’ who caused the death of Terrance Moorhead. ”
Following a hearing Tuesday, Brady granted the motion to withdraw Petersen’s guilty plea, which gives him the opportunity to go to trial for Moorehead’s murder.
Jury selection is set for January 11.