Speaking through an attorney known for taking on high-profile celebrity cases, the family of gay D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts Tuesday called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Betts’ murder in April was motivated by anti-gay bias.
Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who has been retained by Betts’ parents, discussed the possible hate crime angle to the case during a news conference at a courthouse in Rockville, Md., minutes after a judge sentenced defendant Alante Saunders, 19, to 40 years in jail for Betts’ murder.
Betts was found shot to death April 15 in the second floor bedroom of his Silver Spring, Md., house. Saunders and three other teenage males were charged with murder in connection with the case a short time later.
Authorities said Saunders met Betts through a sex chat line and hatched a plan with the other three youths to commit a robbery. Defense attorneys and prosecutors said the youths did not intend to kill Betts and attributed the shooting to a “robbery that went bad.”
Police identified Saunders as the shooter.
“Brian’s family retained me to represent them as victims in the criminal case,” said Allred, who has hosted a radio talk show specializing in legal issues.
“The family has also retained me to explore whether or not Brian’s murder should also be prosecuted under the new Matthew Shepard federal hate crimes law,” she said.
“Brian was a gay man and we believe an investigation should be opened under that law to determine whether a hate crime has or has not been committed by defendant Saunders and if it has whether it is appropriate to proceed with a federal prosecution under that law.”
Police and prosecutors said an investigation found that Saunders and Betts met through a sex chat line and that Betts invited Saunders, who expressed an interest in seeing him, to his house. Sources familiar with the case have said the chat line caters to gay men seeking other men for sex, but authorities have declined to identify the chat line by name.
Saunders pleaded guilty last month to first-degree felony murder in connection with the case. As part of a plea bargain arrangement, prosecutors agreed to ask Montgomery County District Court Judge John Debelius to sentence Saunders to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended.
Debelius agreed to the request at a sentencing hearing Tuesday following emotional statements delivered by nine family members and friends of Betts, including Betts’ mother, Doris Betts, his father, Delbert Betts, and sister, Jennifer Altomare. Nearly all of them wept as they described Betts, 42, as an extraordinary educator, mentor, loyal family member and friend.
“When I received word that our son had been killed in his own home, my world crumpled around me,” said Doris Betts. “These were supposed to be the golden years for me, but instead they will be the saddest years of my life.”
The judge also agreed to a request by defense attorney David Felsen that he recommend that Saunders be placed in a special state correctional facility that provides vocational training.
Debelius noted that under Maryland law, Saunders is eligible to apply for parole after serving 20 years.
Earlier in the day on Tuesday, the second of the three other men charged in Betts’ murder, Sharif Lancaster, 19, pleaded guilty to robbery and use of a handgun during commission of a felony as part of a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. Prosecutors agreed to drop an initial charge of first-degree felony murder against Lancaster.
He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 11 and faces a possible maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.
The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office and defense attorneys have said discussions were underway to arrange plea bargains for the remaining two defendants, Joel Johnson, 19, and Deontra Gray, 18.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told reporters at the courthouse that his office investigated the possibility that Betts’ murder was a hate crime and could not find evidence to substantiate a bias related motive to the case.
“If we had seen evidence of a hate crime, we would have charged it,” he said. “And we have an advantage. We’ve seen the evidence.”
Gay rights attorneys have said state and local prosecutors sometimes don’t recognize the nuances of evidence that others might interpret as bias related elements of cases involving gay victims. They note that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act gives federal prosecutors through the Justice Department authority to overrule local prosecutors and initiate a federal hate crimes charge if supported by a federal probe.
At her courthouse news conference Allred declined to disclose evidence she knows of to support a hate crime, saying it would be improper to discuss evidence until the cases of all of the four defendants are completed.
Some gay activists have speculated that a bias or hate related element might be present in the case if the defendants selected the chat line to specifically target a gay man for a crime.
McCarthy and other prosecutors with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office have refused so far to disclose specific details about what Sanders said to Betts through the chat line and the events that led to his firing the gun he used to shoot Betts.