Three Dupont Circle men accused of conspiring to cover up the 2006 murder of D.C. attorney Robert Wone will go free.
Judge Lynn Leibovitz on Tuesday exonerated defendants Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward in the sensational trial which captivated Washington for weeks. The three housemates were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Price was also on trial for evidence tampering.
“It is very likely that Mr. Price pulled the murder weapon from Mr. Wone’s chest,” Leibovitz said. But, the judge added, she couldn’t say beyond a reasonable doubt whether he did so with the intent to obstruct justice. Leibovitz further concluded that Price “very likely tampered with and altered the murder weapon,” though she couldn’t establish beyond a reasonable doubt what his motivations were. In short, the government simply failed to prove its case.
“We all understand and accept the judge’s verdict,” prosecuting U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner told reporters following the announcement. Kirschner said the investigation of Wone’s murder “will remain open.”
The victim’s widow, Kathy Wone, bolted the courtroom immediately following the verdict. She plans on pursuing a $20 million wrongful death civil suit against the men.
Robert Wone was found stabbed to death in the home of the exonerated defendants at 1509 Swann Street NW on the night of Aug. 2, 2006. Authorities believed the three men who lived in the house were in some way connected to the slaying. The trio, all gay men involved in a “polyamorous” domestic relationship, had claimed they weren’t culpable in the murder of their visitor or any subsequent cover-up. They said they were all sleeping when Wone, who was staying the night as a guest in their million-dollar townhouse following a late night at work, was murdered by some unseen intruder wielding one of their kitchen knives. The defendants theorized the intruder entered through an unlocked back door.
But there was circumstantial evidence that suggested otherwise. There were no signs that anything in the house had been disturbed, or rifled through, for instance. Authorities believe that, if there had truly been an intruder that night, he or she would have likely been a burglar—yet no items of value, including Wone’s wallet and BlackBerry, went missing the night of his slaughter. Also, some of Wone’s blood was unaccounted for: while there were two blood spots on a pull-out couch he was found atop, and a little blood on a towel Price claimed to have used to apply pressure to the victim’s wounds, Wone likely bled a lot more as he was stabbed three times: twice in the chest and once in the abdomen. That implies the housemates cleaned up some of his blood. Another thing that casts suspicion on the trio was Wone’s perfect wounds. They showed no sign that he had moved as a kitchen knife plunged into him over and over.
Throughout the case, the prosecution has come up with various scenarios regarding what happened to Wone the night he died, everything from the defendants sexually assaulting Wone to the defendants paralyzing Wone with a toxin to Price’s sometimes drug-addled brother allegedly killing Wone. But the proesecution wasn’t able to back up the narratives with enough evidence to convict. Though the prosecution aptly conveyed that something mysterious happened to Wone on a muggy August evening in Dupont Circle, Leibovitz was only interested in what could be proved.
“A trier of fact must be convinced,” the judge said.
UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: An excerpt from the judge’s final order explains exactly why she didn’t find the defendants guilty of a cover up:
“Despite the many suspicious and even damning circumstances, despite the implausibility of the intruder story, and despite the discordant and inappropriate demeanor and conduct of the defendants, I am constrained to conclude that the government has not eliminated, beyond a reasonable doubt, the real possibility created by what I have termed the “math problem” in this case. It is very probable that the government’s theory is correct, that even if the defendants did not participate in the murder some or all of them knew enough about the circumstances of it to provide helpful information to law enforcement and have chosen to withhold that information for reasons of their own. Nevertheless, after lengthy analysis of the evidence I conclude that the government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements of obstruction of justice as to Mr. Price, Mr. Zaborsky or Mr. Ward. I further find that, for the same reasons,that the government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt as to each defendant that he joined a conspiracy to obstruct justice. I find also, for all of the reasons I have stated, that the government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Price committed the offense of tampering with evidence.
My verdicts represent my effort to fairly and impartially follow the rule of law. My focus on the difference between “moral certainty” and “evidentiary certainty” in this case is probably cold comfort to those who loved Robert Wone and wish for some measure of peace or justice, and I am extremely sorry for this. I believe, however, that the reasonable doubt standard is essential to maintaining our criminal justice system as the fair and just system we wish it to be.”
UPDATE, 4:05 p.m: The defense team for Ward—David Schertler, Robert Spagnoletti and Veronica Jennigns—have issued the following statement regarding the verdict.
“On behalf of Dylan Ward we are extremely gratified by judge Leibovitz’s verdicts of not guilty on all counts as to all three defendants. As we have said since the murder of Mr. Wone, Mr. Ward is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in this matter. Mr. Ward also continues to express his deepest sympathies to the family of Robert Wone for their tragic loss and hopes that the person who committed this crime will some day be brought to justice.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery