By Susanna Henighan
TORTOLA, BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS– One year after four American men went on trial here for murder, the legal controversy still swirls, thanks to an impending appeal to a high British tribunal and recent media reports that fanned the charges of alleged injustice.
If a recent GQ story and an appearance by one of the accused on Larry King Live have reignited the U.S. media circus, locals on this Caribbean island have taken up new gossip, such as reports that the island’s financial secretary was arrested on corruption charges.
For one of the defendants, however, Charlottesville resident Michael Spicer, the "McMillen case," as it's called on the island, still lingers. He faces a charge of conspiracy– or "perverting the course of justice” in Tortola-speak.
The 38-year-old Spicer, a law school graduate and local bon vivant, was set free along with two other men during the 2001 trial.
But the fourth man, New Yorker William Labrador, 38, is serving a life sentence for killing Lois McMillen.
While time may have dimmed interest in the case on the island, it has not dispelled any of the mystery, and it certainly has not resolved the lingering doubt about the American who took a New Year’s holiday in the British Virgin Islands in 1999.
A May 28 hearing at London's Privy Council will again raise temperatures, since if this court decides not to hear appeals filed by Labrador and his childhood friend Alexander Benedetto, 36, the consequences– especially for Labrador– are dire.
The Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal ruled against Labrador’s appeal in January, and the Privy Council is the final court of appeal for many Caribbean countries and all the British overseas territories.
If the Council rules not to hear Labrador's case, his chances are over. He's been sentenced to life in prison.
McMillen, 34, was murdered on the night of January 14, 2000, after spending a few hours at a low-key bar listening to blues music. All that's certain is that she got into her rental Jeep and left. She did not get very far.
"She first had to flee from her motor vehicle, and then she was violently drowned in the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the West End of Tortola," Justice of Appeal Satrohan Singh summarized in his ruling. "She was cut with a knife, beaten, and then drowned."
Although they presented no physical evidence of his presence, prosecutors theorize that after the other three men were driven home in a taxi, Labrador was hiding in the back seat of McMillen's car when she left the bar.
However, in a blistering GQ article, Bob Drury reports that McMillen could have been killed by a local who left the bar shortly before she did the night of her death. Benedetto describes her as being frightened by aggressive behavior of some locals showed her, and he believes she was murdered because she knew who killed Jason Bally, a Tortolian whose 1999 death is still unsolved.
Spicer calls the GQ article “wonderful,” but he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the local-did-it theory.
“I know it wasn’t me or Evan or Alex or William," says Spicer. "It had to be someone. It could have been another American.”
It is not exactly clear what role prosecutors think Benedetto played. At the time of the murder, he claims, he was at a popular nightspot located at least a 10-minute drive from the murder scene.
Of the four men originally charged, only Spicer's friend, Evan George, 24, can really put the case behind him. George was set free in May 2001, after the trial judge ruled that prosecutors had insufficient evidence against him.
Spicer is not so lucky. While he was set free along with George and Benedetto during the 2001 trial, he still faces a conspiracy charge springing from an allegation that he and Benedetto conspired to buy their taxi driver's silence by allegedly paying him to leave the island.
Spicer came back to Tortola on March 22, the date set for his trial, but since Spicer's co-accused, Benedetto, failed to appear (he was busy with Larry King), prosecutors asked to postpone the case.
During the brief court hearing, Spicer showed no emotion, and he left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.
Back in Charlottesville, Spicer describes the trip as uneventful. He mentions that "Zebra House," the magnificently sited cottage his family owns in Tortola, is now for sale.
“After what happened to me and to Lois,” says Spicer, “I can’t imagine using it.”
Depending on what happens with the Privy Council this month, Spicer may have to appear in court again in October. In July, he plans to take the New York bar exam.
The Benedetto interview, broadcast the Monday after the hearing he skipped, sent shock waves through the British Virginia Islands.
One American man living here said his mother called him at the end of the show, warning him to stay away from the police.
That Benedetto would ignore a court date in favor of an American talk show was insult enough to authorities here, but what Benedetto said on Larry King Live was even harsher.
The son of a wealthy New York publisher denounced BVI's judicial system, its police, and the investigation that had landed him on trial for murder.
The BVI's chief minister and the governor– the territory's two highest-ranking officials– quickly fired off a stern letter to King.
"Mr. Benedetto’s assertions were replete with falsehoods, gross exaggerations, and erroneous statements," the letter stated. The leaders asked for equal time, which King allegedly refused.
If the crime had occurred in America, prosecutors would not be able to retry Benedetto, a point Benedetto made several times during the Larry King Live show. But while double jeopardy is forbidden under the U.S. constitution, it is allowed in certain situations in the British Virgin Islands. Among these is when a trial judge throws out a case because he believes there is not enough evidence, which is what happened in Benedetto, Spicer, and George's case.
The experience has certainly heightened Spicer’s appreciation of his American citizenship.
“The land of the free may be a cliché,” he says, “but it’s good to be back in the United States.”
–with Charlottesville reporting by Lisa Provence