Labrador's chance: Spicer's friend gets London hearing

LONDON– On Monday, February 25, five judges will convene in an ornate courtroom on Downing Street, London, a few steps away from Prime Minister Tony Blair's house.

Barristers wearing the high white collars of their profession will file in to appear before what was once the ultimate court for the entire British Empire and is today still the final court of appeal for a number of British territories.

Far away, on the Caribbean island of Tortola, New Yorker William Labrador will work up a sweat on his exercise bike, tend to his small garden, and feed the feral cats he has befriended since his incarceration at Her Majesty's Prison more than three years ago.

But this Monday is not like the hundreds of others Labrador, 39, the executive of a start-up modeling firm, has experienced at the prison. On this day, all the legal research, family fundraisers, and strategising will be put to the test: Can his lawyers, led by British barrister Edward Fitzgerald Q.C., convince the court to declare him innocent of the brutal murder he was convicted of two years ago?

Miles north, Virginian Michael Spicer, 39, will also probably feel a twinge of awareness on Monday. After all, he too knows what it is like to be imprisoned in the British Virgin Islands; he spent more than 15 months at the same prison, charged with the same crime that Labrador is now serving time for.

And what's more, depending on the court's ruling, Spicer– a long-time law student who lives comfortably on family wealth– could find himself back on Tortola, charged with a crime in connection with the January 2000 death of Lois McMillen, the 34-year-old Connecticut artist Labrador was convicted of killing.

At the time of her death, McMillen was staying with her parents at the condominium they owned, located within shouting distance of the villa where Spicer, his 25-year-old boyfriend, Evan George, and a fourth man, New Yorker Alexander Benedetto, were staying.

When McMillen turned up dead one Saturday morning drowned along the rocky shoreline of a main thoroughfare police arrested Spicer and his houseguests within three hours.

After more than a year of waiting (spent behind bars at Her Majesty's Prison on Tortola), the four were tried in 2001. Spicer, George, and Benedetto were acquitted by the judge after four weeks of trial; he ruled that the Crown's case was simply too shaky to proceed.

But Labrador was not set free. He was convicted on the evidence of a fellow inmate, Texas swindler Jeffrey Plante, 61, who said he heard Labrador confess. On May 10, 2001, Justice Kenneth Benjamin did the only thing he could: He sentenced Labrador to the required life term.

Labrador quickly appealed, arguing that the conviction was unsound because of Plante's possible motive to make up a story in return for leniency and the lack of any other corroborative evidence. This argument was bolstered in 2001, when Plante was sentenced to a mere two months for writing more than 20 bad checks. Plante has since left Tortola and is back in prison in Texas, where he is finishing a 45-year sentence for theft.

But Labrador's appeal was rejected by the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal in January 2002, leaving him with one last hope: the Privy Council in England, where the case will be heard next week.

The Privy Council will also consider the question of whether Benedetto should be tried again, as the Court of Appeal ordered last year.

But that is not all. Although Charlottesvillian Spicer was set free in 2001, he did not leave Tortola unencumbered. A joint charge of obstruction of justice remains against him and Benedetto. Prosecutors say they have evidence that the two men tried to prevent a key witness from speaking to police during the murder investigation.

Prosecutors have put this case on hold until the Privy Council ruling, but they haven't dropped the charges. If both Labrador and Benedetto win their appeals, it is unlikely prosecutors will pursue these lesser charges against Spicer. But if the ruling goes the other way Spicer may not be so lucky.

So Spicer will likely be paying close attention to what happens in London next week. After all, he doesn't want to wind up back in Tortola and back behind bars.

Susanna Henighan is a Tortola-based journalist who occasionally reports on this notable case for The Hook.

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