On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands (D.C. Crim. No. 83-00087)
Before: ADAMS, GARTH and BECKER, Circuit Judges
This is an appeal from a judgment of the District Court of the Virgin Islands affirming a judgment of conviction by the Territorial Court in the Virgin Islands against appellant Sheldon Grant on charges of assault in the third degree, V.I. Code Ann. tit. 14, § 297(2) (1971), and possession of a dangerous weapon during a crime of violence, id. § 2251(a)(2)(B) (1974). The appeal presents two interesting questions concerning the law of character evidence, more specifically: (1) whether testimony that a defendant has never been arrested or charged with a crime is admissible as character evidence and entitles the defendant to a good character charge; and (2) whether evidence of a lack of prior arrests is admissible on any other grounds.*fn1 The appeal also raises two significant points concerning the sentencing authority of Virgin Islands courts. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm the conviction.
On October 10, 1982, Sheldon Grant was employed as a cook at the Binnacle Bar and Restaurant located in the Caravelle Hotel in Christiansted, St. Croix. He reported to work sometime before 7:00 a.m. to prepare for the morning's breakfast. Grant was the first employee to arrive and, because there had been incidents involving missing bar goods, he waited for a waitress to appear so that the two of them could enter the restaurant together. When it became apparent that the waitress was going to be late, however, Grant used his key and entered the restaurant alone.
There is not dispute that at approximately 7:00 a.m., a confrontation took place between Grant and Franklin Parris, the prosecuting witness. Parris, the government's principal witness, claimed that he sought entry to the restaurant to have breakfast, but that Grant cursed at him and refused to let him in whereupon the argument grew more intense, with both parties exchanging obscenities. Parris testified that while he (Parris) remained outside, Grant went to the kitchen and obtained a butcher knife, exited the restaurant, and, after a struggle, stabbed him with the knife in the left leg.
Grant's version of the incident was very different. He testified that Parris arrived at the restaurant door and started to bang on it while cursing at Grant. Grant stated that, feeling threatened, he attempted to lock Parris out of the restaurant but that Parris, a much larger man, prevented him from doing so. According to Grant, there was no means of escape (the rear door was locked and Grant did not have a key), so he ran to the kitchen area, picked up a knife, and ran back to the door. Grant testified that Parris then forced his way into the restaurant, lunged at Grant, and that they "rumbled about," but that, as he was trying to escape the fracas, both he and Parris sustained injuries from the knife.
The case thus resolved essentially into a credibility dispute between the complainant and the defendant. after a two-day trial, the case was submitted to the jury, which found Grand guilty on both counts.
The most difficult question on appeal arises out of an incident during trial when Grant, whose only character witness was unavailable,*fn2 attempted to testify that he had never been arrested or charged with a crime. Grant also asserted that such testimony would support a good character charge. The Territorial Court held that the proffered testimony was not proper character evidence and that, in any event, only a third party can testify to a defendant's good character (by evidence of opinion or reputation).*fn3 The Territorial Court therefore excluded the testimony and refused to charge the jury that evidence of good character is circumstantial evidence that could weigh in favor of an acquittal. The district court, reviewing the case on appeal pursuant to V.I. Code Ann. tit. 4, § 33 (1972), affirmed.
Grant's attempt to obtain a good character charge in the manner described raises the issues we have described ...