ST. VINCENT - A missing handgun, telephone threats to jurors and the seamier side of life for some millionaire yachters in the Caribbean highlight the trial of a white American couple accused of murdering a black boatman.
West Virginians James and Penny Fletcher could hang if they're found guilty. The case has put St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the international spotlight. Not everyone is comfortable with it.
Many locals, known as "Vincys," were enraged by U.S. television reports they felt painted their island as corrupt and incapable of giving the Fletchers a fair trial under a justice system inherited from British colonizers.
Prime Minister James Mitchell - who was urged by President Clinton to ensure the Fletchers got "due process" - recently toured the United States to counter the negative publicity. No one listened, he complained.
"If I were to die tonight I would not make the CNN news," he said late Thursday. "They are not interested in our opinion."
The trial, which began Monday, is the talk of Kingstown. Residents drop what they're doing to hear the latest radio updates and discuss them.
Small crowds gather outside the old stone courthouse, with many offering support to Fletcher's parents, Robert and Kae, as they stoically take seats on the courtroom's wooden benches.
The trial's cast adds to its interest. The prime minister's chief political rival, Ralph Gonsalves, is Jim Fletcher's attorney. Prosecutor Karl Hudson-Phillips was the leading prosecutor in murder trials for the 1983 assassination of Grenada's premier, Maurice Bishop, and his Cabinet.
The victim, Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, was a popular 30-year-old boat taxi driver in Bequia, a northern Grenadine island popular with yachtsmen.
Then there are the accused: James, a 50-year-old former Huntington, W.Va., mining company executive, and his 3rd wife, Penny, 35. The wealthy couple sailed into a storm of controversy in Bequia on their yacht, the Carefree, in August 1996.
In early October, Joseph's body was found floating off Bequia with a .22-caliber bullet through the heart. He had last been seen 3 days earlier, ferrying the Fletchers to their yacht.
The Fletchers had registered a .22-caliber handgun when they arrived in St. Vincent. The gun has never been found. The couple claimed a deckhand, Benedict Redhead, stole it when he left his job in August.
But 2 witnesses have testified that Mrs. Fletcher boasted about shooting a gun only 4 days before Joseph disappeared. Others said the Fletchers tried to escape by sailing away.
"The guilty flee," Hudson-Phillips said.
Defense attorneys suggest the Fletchers were leaving to avoid an angry crowd. Locals had shouted "Murderers!" at their yacht when Joseph's boat was found abandoned, 2 bullets inside it.
Redhead the deckhand added to the drama Friday. He denied taking the gun and claimed he once caught Mrs. Fletcher hugging Joseph aboard the Carefree.
When he confronted Mrs. Fletcher, he said, she started screaming, accusing him of trying to rape her. Redhead said he left, fearing he would be shot. Redhead also said he saw Mrs. Fletcher throw a gun at her husband on several occasions.
Jurors haven't been allowed to hear locals' accounts of the Fletchers' hard-drinking ways and public brawls. In a crucial ruling, Eastern Caribbean High Court Judge Dunbar Cenac refused to allow testimony about threats Mrs. Fletcher allegedly made against blacks or a bar fight she instigated.
The trial nearly collapsed Thursday after 2 of the 12 jurors received telephone threats.
"I know where you're working. I know where you're living. ... If you know what's good for you, you will free the Fletchers," 1 juror was told by a man with a foreign accent, according to Hudson-Phillips. The 2nd threat came from someone with a local accent.
"Certain external forces are operating on this trial in order to bludgeon" justice, the prosecutor said. He called for a mistrial - which would postpone everything until the next court session in October.
The judge refused, but warned that if there were further attempts to tamper with the jury, he would have "no hesitation" stopping the trial.
That's one thing almost nobody wants, including U.S. authorities, who are closely watching the case. They don't want a prolonged trial to jeopardize their "good working relationship" with Mitchell's government, including efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Mrs. Fletcher's health is a concern. She has fainted several times during her confinement in a century-old prison, and has been treated for a possible pre-cancerous condition.
Each morning, the Fletchers sit inside a small, wooden defendants' dock, facing the jury and a portrait of the queen. Mrs. Fletcher hunches up against her husband, who drapes an arm around her shoulder. The courtroom interludes are the longest they have been together in months.
"How are the folks back home? Are they with us?" Fletcher asked reporters Thursday.