Opposing attorneys in the complex Robert Wone murder conspiracy trial clashed during opening arguments Monday over whether the defendants’ sexual orientation prompted authorities to prosecute them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner said the government would point to the fact that Joseph Price, 39, Victor Zaborsky, 44, and Dylan Ward, 39, were in a three-way relationship as a means of showing that their “strong bond” played a role in their alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Wone, a Washington attorney, was found stabbed to death in a guest room in the men’s Dupont Circle area townhouse in August 2006. The defendants, all of whom are gay, have been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and evidence tampering in connection with the police investigation of the murder. No one has been charged with the murder.
The men face a maximum sentence of 38 years in prison if found guilty on all three charges.
“This case is not about sexual orientation,” Kirschner told D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who is poised to decide the men’s fate after the prosecution and defense attorneys opted to forego a jury trial.
“This case is not about the personal relationship of these three. There is nothing negative that can be inferred due to the sexual orientation or the lifestyle choices of these men,” he said.
But he noted that Price, Zaborsky and Ward “had powerful bonds among them,” which amounted to a “tight knit family” that is protecting its members from the harm that would come to them “if the truth came out.”
Kirschner then spent more than an hour outlining the government’s contention that the men tampered with the crime scene, repeatedly misled police and homicide detectives investigating the murder, and know but refuse to disclose the identity of the person or people who fatally stabbed Wone three times in the chest.
He reiterated the government’s assertion in numerous briefs and a police affidavit that the evidence refutes the defendants’ claim that an intruder killed Wone after entering the house from a rear door while they were asleep in their bedrooms.
Among other things, Kirschner noted that paramedics and crime scene investigators found far less blood on the bed where Wone was found with three “gaping” stab wounds and found no signs of a struggle or defensive wounds. He said this is evidence of crime scene tampering.
Defense attorneys representing the three gay men countered that the evidence doesn’t support any of the government’s allegations, including an assertion that more blood should have been found on the scene. From the moment homicide detectives arrived at the house to investigate the murder, they became “marred and infatuated in a theory based on ignorance,” prompting them to suspect the men were involved in the murder, said Price’s attorney, Bernard Grimm.
“Why is a straight man coming to the house of a gay man,” Grimm quoted a detective as saying while interviewing one of the defendants.
Grimm said the defense would present expert witnesses to prove that one of the three stab wounds that pierced Wone’s heart would have rendered him dead within five seconds or less. Grimm said this, rather than a sinister conspiracy, was the reason there were no signs of a struggle and more blood did not flow from the wounds.
And he said there was “no orchestrating of the crime scene,” contesting the evidence tampering charge.
Ward’s defense attorney, David Schertler, said prosecutors were basing their case on “faulty assumptions, speculation and innuendo.”
Following the opening arguments, Wone’s wife, Katherine Wone, took the stand as the first government witnesses. In response to questions by Kirschner, she told how her husband met Price and recounted the friendship they shared as undergraduate students at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.
She said that her husband, whom Kirschner described as “exclusively straight,” arranged to spend the night at the home of Price, Zaborsky and Ward on the night of the murder because he planned to work late at his nearby office at Radio Free Asia, where he served as general counsel.
The trial, which is expected to last weeks, recessed shortly before 5 p.m. Monday. Katherine Wone was to return and complete her testimony Tuesday.
D.C. attorney Dale Edwin Sanders, who practices criminal law, said the part of the government’s case that appears the strongest is its assertion that no evidence exists to show an intruder entered the house to kill Wone. He noted that in cases based on circumstantial evidence, sometimes “missing” evidence becomes the key to the case.
In his opening arguments, Kirschner noted that an intruder would have had to scale a seven-foot security fence surrounding the back yard of the house, even if the rear door to the house was unlocked, as the defense says was likely.
He pointed to police findings that there were no footprints or other signs that someone jumped into the patio and grounds inside the fence. He said police findings also showed that dust, pollen and other debris on the top surface of the fence was “completely” undisturbed, indicating that an intruder did not go over the fence.
Additionally, Kirschner asked if an intruder entered the premises to burglarize the house, as suggested by the defense, why didn’t he take a host of valuable items in clear view, including a laptop computer, which were in his path en route to the guest room where Wone slept.
Schertler, however, disputed the arguments. Among other things, he said that an intruder could have bypassed the fence by using a nearby trash container to climb onto a shed next to the house where Price, Zaborsky and Ward lived, and jumped over the fence. He also noted that the prosecution could not determine the intruder’s “state of mind” as to why he did not steal anything in the house.