D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz found three gay men charged with obstructing justice in the murder of attorney Robert Wone not guilty of all counts against them Tuesday.
Leibovitz, who read her lengthy decision in the case aloud to a packed courtroom, said that while she felt there was significant evidence implicating the defendants Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward, there continued to exist a reasonable doubt on all charges against them.
“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,” she said.
“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,” she said.
She said prosecutors similarly failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the three defendants engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice or evidence tampering.
The decision, which took more than an hour for Leibovitz to recite, did not disclose the verdict until late in its reading.
Before announcing her verdict, Leibovitz led some observers to believe she was about to find the defendants guilty on at least some of the charges. With suspense building in the courtroom, she said the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Wone was not killed by an unknown intruder who entered the defendants’ house, where Wone was found stabbed to death in August 2006, as the defense has claimed.
“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 probability of what I have termed the ‘math problem’ in this case,” she said.
Leibovitz described the “math problem” as the government’s apparent inability to definitively prove which defendant committed which specific act of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and evidence tampering — the three charges on which the men were indicted more than two years ago.
Wone was found stabbed to death in a guest bedroom in the three defendants’ townhouse on Swann Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle, on Aug. 2, 2006. The four-year drama surrounding the case has captured the interest of the local gay community and as well as many in the larger D.C. area, prompting a large contingent of news outlets to provide extensive coverage of the case.
Defense attorney David Schertler, who represented Ward, urged Leibovitz in his closing argument last week to find the defendants not guilty based on what he called the government’s lack of sufficient evidence, saying the men have been in a “living nightmare” for four years.
But the ordeal faced by Price, Zaborsky and Ward is not likely to end soon. Kathy Wone, Robert Wone’s widow, has filed a $20 million wrongful death civil suit against the men on behalf of her husband, and that case is expected to start working its way through the judicial system shortly.
Unlike the criminal case, the burden of proof for a civil wrongful death suit is less stringent, making Kathy Wone’s chances of winning greater than that in the criminal case, court observers said.
Looking toward the Wone family members sitting in the courtroom, including Kathy Wone, Leibovitz said Tuesday that her adherence to the strict standards of probable cause probably would be “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,” Leibovitz said. “I cite the wisdom of English jurist William Blackstone that it is ‘better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.’”
Closing arguments in the case were heard last week. Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner, the trial’s lead prosecutor, noted at that time that Wone’s killer had yet to be identified because Price, Zaborsky and Ward “prevented the murder from being solved.”
He argued that the government’s case proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Wone was not killed by an unidentified intruder who entered the defendants’ house, as was claimed. Instead, Kirschner reiterated the government’s contention that the defendants know who killed Wone and engaged in a cover-up to protect that person.
Wone, a friend of the three men, was spending the night at their Dupont Circle area townhouse after working late at his nearby office.
Although he acknowledged that prosecutors could not prove who it was that killed Wone, Kirschner told Leibovitz that the totality of evidence “leaps out and screams” that the defense’s intruder theory is a “fabrication.”
All three defense attorneys fired back, saying that after five weeks of witness testimony, the government had failed to provide any evidence of a motive in the case and instead based its case on a long list of “suspicious” occurrences that don’t prove the defendants covered up a crime.
“We’ve been here five weeks and we’ve never seen any evidence of why these men would do this,” said Price’s attorney, Bernard Grimm, who noted the defendants had a warm and ongoing friendship with Wone and his wife.
“What the government has done is cobble together a patchwork of suspicious circumstances and make a fantastic leap to say this is a conspiracy to obstruct justice,” said David Schertler, Ward’s attorney. “None of these circumstances can be used to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In a statement to reporters outside the courthouse, Kirschner, said the Wone murder investigation remains open, prompting court observers to note that Price, Zaborsky and Ward could still be charged with murder, manslaughter or other homicide-related charges should more evidence surface in the case.
“We can only hope that further evidence continues to come to light that will allow us to move forward in the homicide investigation … to bring justice to the family of Robert Wone for whoever it was that killed Robert,” he said.
Kirschner added, “We respect and accept the judge’s verdict … It was thoughtful, it was well reasoned.”
Grimm told reporters Leibovitz said it best when she explained the importance of the government’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“That’s the system of justice that we live in, and that’s what it is,” he said. “Other countries would die to have this system of justice.”