Life sentence demanded in cop-killer appeal case

~ 25 and four years for other suspects ~

PHILIPSBURG–In his first public appearance in St. Maarten on Thursday new Solicitor General Jan Spaans demanded life imprisonment, 25 years, and four years in prison, respectively, for suspects Ridge Damisse (24), Jovanny Leon (21), and O.A.C. (35) in the appeals in the so-called Menam case.

Menam is the codename for the investigation into the August 5, 2015, armed robbery of Oro Diamanté jewellery store in Front Street during which Police Officer Gamali “Benji” Benjamin was shot and killed when the suspects attempted to escape in broad daylight.

Thursday’s Appeals Court hearing started approximately 45 minutes earlier as planned in connection with problems with the Judges’ flight schedule back to Curaçao.

The hearing started with what the presiding judge described as “shocking images” of the robbery taken by video-surveillance cameras at the store and in the direct vicinity. In the videos it could be seen how two robbers enter wearing helmets. One of them starts smashing showcases with a hammer, while the other holds a gun. When the latter leaves the store it can be seen how he is firing a number of shots in rapid succession.

“I cannot even look at this video,” Leon said after the video was shown. Damisse, also known as ‘Kilo Gotti’ remained silent. He also remained mum during police interrogations, but had broken his silence in front of the Judge at the Court of First Instance confessing he had been the one who had shot at the police officers. “It was a sad day. I will never forget,” Damisse told the Court in his characteristic dark voice on Thursday.

Damisse and Leon knew each other from prison. Both were released from detention in November 2014 for lack of evidence. Leon introduced Damisse to the robbery’s mastermind named “Fish.” Both men said the robbery’s modus operandi had not been discussed until shortly before the robbery, when they were also provided with the necessary equipment, among which a firearm.

Leon said he had not seen a gun until it was dropped on the floor inside the store. Damisse stated he only received the weapon while they were on their way to the store. “I did not expect I would need the weapon. I only found later that it was loaded.”

C., who is also known as “Brat,” confessed that he had given Damisse a number of rides in his gypsy taxi, adding that Damisse owed him some money, but denied any involvement in armed robbery.

The Solicitor General said the “brutal robbery had shocked the community, including the Police Force,” of which Bike Patrol Leader Benjamin had been a beloved colleague.

“By sheer luck another policeman is still able to tell of his experience during that day. He was shot at several times but was not hit and thanks to him the suspect could be apprehended close by.”

In its verdict of May 4, 2016, the Judge in the Court of First Instance had refrained from imposing a life sentence on main suspect Damisse, who was found guilty of armed robbery, and of the manslaughter of Officer Benjamin, and the attempted manslaughter of another member of the Police Force.

The Prosecutor’s Office had requested a life prison sentence, but the Judge said she considered 20 years sufficient punishment, as the chances of reoffending were considered low and Damisse, who is a first-offender, had shown remorse.

‘No return to society’

   The Solicitor-General said Thursday that Damisse should be sentenced for life as the now 24-year-old suspect “should not return to society.” In comparing this case with the Helmin Wiels murder and the Hato-Airport shooting case, in which life sentences were imposed by the Court in Curaçao, Spaans said that also in the Menam case the legal order had been severely shocked.

“It concerned a very brutal and rude armed robbery, committed in broad daylight in a busy shopping street with many tourists around. A brave officer who was doing his job at the right place and time was shot down in cold blood. It is a miracle that no shoppers were shot. The impact is still being felt,” he said.

The Solicitor-General said that Damisse may not have a criminal record, but this did not mean that he was unknown by the Police and the judiciary.

Considering reports by the Parole Board and a psychiatrist, the Court of First Instance saw no reason to assume that Damisse would commit similar crimes after his release from prison, but the Prosecutor’s Office disagreed with this line of reasoning.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the Parole Board had found a high risk of reoffending with Damisse as he was out of a job and would be willing to take high risks in his urge to survive.

The Solicitor General said that the psychiatrist’s conclusions were not very reassuring either as the defendant was labelled “emotionally unstable” and “aggressive.”

He said Damisse’s attitude towards the crime weighed heavily in his assessment, stating that remarks made on WhatsApp and in the social media contradicted his statements of regret. “See, they are wearing vests now, that’s why we’re aiming for the head,” he reportedly told fellow inmates.

Spaans concluded that Damisse had not displayed any self-insight or improvement. “His statements of regret only serve his purpose to get a lower sentence,” the Solicitor-General said. “It took him a long time to confess. The compiled evidence against him gave him no other choice but to confess. Life imprisonment is an appropriate and suitable punishment,” he said.

In case the Court would consider imposing a life sentence not possible, the Prosecutor’s Office recommended 30 years instead.

‘Circle of complicity’

The Court of First Instance found Leon guilty as an accomplice in the armed robbery. He was, however, not held responsible for what transpired in the shooting following the robbery.

“His intent was directed at the robbery, and was not also aimed at the shooting incident and the violence which followed after the robbery when they tried to escape,” the Judge explained at the time. Where the Prosecutor had called for 25 years in Leon’s case, the Judge imposed eight years instead.

The Prosecutor’s Office, however, said there was sufficient evidence of Leon’s involvement in the shooting as it considered his complicity to this crime proven.

Based on High Court jurisprudence, the Solicitor General found it proven that Leon had connected himself with the escape from the crime scene when Leon and Damisse were both caught in the act while Leon knew that his co-defendant possessed a firearm.

“He accepted that a weapon would be used in the robbery and in the escape. With Officer Benjamin motionless on the ground, he jumped on the getaway scooter, in which he closed the circle of complicity,” Spaans said in calling on the Court to quash the previous verdict and sentence Leon to 25 years.

The lesser Court acquitted “Brat,” whereas the Prosecutor had called for four years. Spaans said the Prosecutor’s Office had no doubts about C.’s girlfriend’s statement that he had ordered her to make video images of the store’s interior on his mobile phone in preparation of the robbery. Again, he called on the Court to sentence C. to four years.

Accomplice Mike H. Azor (35), who provided a hammer to Damisse, which was used in the robbery to smash jewellery store showcases, was sentenced by the Court of First Instance to two years and six months. The Appeals Court will give its decisions in the other cases on Wednesday, February 22, at 1:45pm.

Source: The Daily Herald