The man accused of firing the fatal bullet in a 2013 Flanders home invasion took the unusual step of skipping jury selection at the start of his murder trial Tuesday.
Going against the advice of his attorney, Messiah Booker told Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge John Collins that as a “sovereign citizen” he did not wish to participate in his own trial and he’d be exercising his right to be absent.
Mr. Booker, 32, briefly appeared in the Riverside courtroom before jury selection began, refusing to wear the dress shirt and sweater provided by his attorney and requesting to read from a prepared statement. Wearing a green county issued jumpsuit, Mr. Booker called the court proceedings “corporate fiction” and referred to his own attorney as a “straw man,” as he read from several pages but never finished the remarks he had prepared.
“I do not transfer my power of attorney to anyone over myself,” he said. “I wish to preserve all my rights as an aboriginal person.” He asked Judge Collins to refer to him as “Bey” instead of Booker, to which the judge declined.
Mr. Booker is one of four people charged with second-degree murder and first-degree burglary — and the first to stand trial — following the Priscilla Road incident that led to the death of 21-year-old Riverhead High School graduate Demitri Hampton in January 2013.
The last suspect charged in the case, prosecutors said at the time of his October 2015 arrest that Mr. Booker was the one who shot and killed Mr. Hampton during an attempted burglary at the victim’s cousin’s house. The break-in occurred about 3 a.m. when armed masked men broke through the front door of the home, detectives said at the time. Mr. Hampton, who was staying in the house with his girlfriend and his cousin, was shot in the chest during a struggle with the intruders and was later pronounced dead at Peconic Bay Medical Center, police had said.
Mr. Booker’s attorney, Brendan Ahern of Hauppauge, said after court was adjourned Tuesday that his client had previously indicated he might exercise his right to not participate, but it was unclear to the judge and attorneys if he would remain present after he refused to sign a waiver to that effect Tuesday.
When Judge Collins asked Mr. Booker if he would then remain in the courtroom Tuesday, the defendant said it “really doesn’t matter to me.”
“Then you’ll be present,” Judge Collins told him.
Moments later he raised his hand and told the judge, “As the beneficiary of the trust, I don’t want to be in this courtroom.” He was then escorted to lockup, but not before asking Judge Collins to not pipe in audio of the proceeding as he sat in the presence of defendants in other cases. Mr. Booker was ultimately transferred back to the county jail before the proceeding concluded. He was advised that he will have to be present in lockup during the trial in case he is needed for witness identification.
Mr. Booker’s decision put Judge Collins in the position of having to explain to prospective jurors, who were not escorted into the courtroom until after Mr. Booker left, that they cannot speculate why the defendant was not present. It also forced Mr. Ahern to start his questioning of prospective jurors by explaining that while it may be unusual for a defendant to not attend his own trial that it is his right.
“It’s a right that’s so important that the law specifically allows it,” he explained as the pool of more than 70 potential jurors listened on.
Speaking outside the courtroom Tuesday, Mr. Ahern said that a defendant skipping his own trial is “clearly not something that happens every day,” but it doesn’t change the facts of the case.
“I would certainly prefer that [my client and I] be able to communicate as much as possible, but our strategy is very clear here,” he said. “We feel there is major weaknesses in the peoples’ case that are going to exist whether my client is sitting there or not.”
Mr. Ahern said he has been reviewing the case with Mr. Booker and he intends to continue as his representation despite his client’s comments in the courtroom Tuesday. He added that it wasn’t immediately clear if Mr. Booker plans to attend other portions of the trial.
Mr. Booker was charged in the Hampton case while already in custody on a 2015 felony weapons conviction. Online prison records show Mr. Booker also has prior felony convictions on weapons and drug charges in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
Mr. Booker wasn’t the only co-defendant in the Hampton case to appear in court Tuesday. Danielle Hall briefly stood before Judge Richard Ambro in County Criminal Court, where her case was adjourned until Monday, April 24. At that point she will be assigned a new attorney, the judge said. A third co-defendant, Michael Parrish, is scheduled for a conference with Judge Ambro on Friday, April 28.
Online court records indicate that a fourth co-defendant, Corry Wallace, entered a pre-plea drug treatment program. A district attorney spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday evening on any potential plea deal for Mr. Wallace, who is scheduled to appear before Judge Collins on Friday, April 28.
All four co-defendants and Mr. Hampton’s cousin were among the list of potential witnesses named in court during jury selection Tuesday. Potential jurors were adjourned until Wednesday morning. Testimony in Mr. Booker’s trial could begin as early as Thursday, though it might not begin until next week, attorneys said.
The trial could last until mid-May, Judge Collins told prospective jurors.