Family of slain gay principal pushes hate crime prosecution
Lawyers representing the family of murdered D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts, who was gay, met with officials at the U.S. Department of Justice on Dec. 7 to reiterate an earlier request that the department investigate whether the murder should be declared a federal hate crime.
Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented celebrities in high-profile cases, said after the meeting that she and co-counsel Rene Sandler asked members of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to determine whether at least one of the four teenagers charged in the murder violated the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
Allred noted that defendant Alante Saunders, 19, pled guilty to first-degree felony murder for shooting Betts to death and has been sentenced to 40 years in jail. But she said his use of a gay sex chat line to meet Betts and target him for a robbery could be grounds for initiating a hate crime prosecution.
“It is clear to us that a person who participates in a male-to-male sex-chat line would be perceived as gay and may be thought to be an especially vulnerable target for a criminal,” Allred said.
Sandler said the Justice Department officials promised to review the case and make a determination in the near future on whether to open a hate crime investigation in the Betts murder case. She said the meeting lasted more than an hour.
Betts was found murdered in his Silver Spring, Md., house in April. In addition to Saunders, two other youths implicated in Betts’ murder pled guilty to lesser charges. A fourth youth is scheduled to stand trial but is said to be considering accepting a plea bargain offer from prosecutors.
The chief prosecutor in the case has said the evidence doesn’t support a hate crime prosecution.
Gag order request denied in Wone case
The judge presiding over a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit filed against three gay men for the 2006 murder of local attorney Robert Wone denied the men’s request that all lawyers in the case be barred from speaking to the media.
Lawyers representing Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward argued that remarks made to the press by at least one of the attorneys representing Kathy Wone, wife of the slain attorney, were highly prejudicial and would make it difficult to obtain an impartial jury in the case.
They were referring to a comment by attorney Patrick Regan outside the courtroom earlier this year related to the defendants’ stated plan to invoke the Fifth Amendment to allow them to refuse to answer nearly all questions at their trial next spring.
Regan told members of the media that, “defendants don’t assert their fifth amendment rights if they are not guilty of something.”
The defendants are expected to argue that answering questions in the civil trial or during pre-trial depositions could incriminate them in a possible future criminal prosecution.
The three were found not guilty on charges of conspiracy and evidence tampering in connection with the Wone murder in a criminal trial earlier this year. No one has been charged with the murder.
In addition to denying the defendants’ gag order request, Judge Brook Hedge also denied a defense motion to dismiss the entire case.
Hedge denied a third motion by the defense requesting that the defendants’ lawyers rather than the defendants themselves be allowed to recite the Fifth Amendment as grounds for not answering a question each time the plaintiff’s lawyers fire questions at the defendants.
Under this ruling, Price, Zaborsky and Ward must state for themselves—while on the witness stand or in pre-trial depositions—that they are invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to answer a question.
Robert Wone was found stabbed to death in a guest bedroom in the Dupont Circle area home of the three men in August 2006. The men have said an unidentified intruder killed Wone after entering the house through a rear door. Police and prosecutors disputed this claim, saying evidence showed that no one entered the home at the time of the murder and that the three men know who the murderer is but are covering up for that person.
A D.C. Superior Court judge, who presided over the non-jury criminal trial, ruled that the government did not provide sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the three men committed the offenses with which they were charged—obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and evidence tampering.
Legal experts have said civil cases require a lower threshold of proof, making it possible that the three gay defendants could be found responsible for Robert Wone’s death from a civil standpoint. A jury must decide the amount of monetary damages the men would be responsible for if found guilty.