A D.C. Superior Court jury on Tuesday found District resident Justin L. Navarro, 25, guilty of first-degree murder while armed for stabbing a gay man at least 15 times in the back seconds after police said he referred to the victim as a “faggot.”
But the jury declined a request by prosecutors that it designate the Nov. 6, 2009 murder of District resident Kevin Massey, 31, as an anti-gay hate crime.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office had charged the defendant with committing this murder because of Mr. Massey’s sexual orientation, but the jury did not make that finding beyond a reasonable doubt,” the office said in a statement.
In addition to handing down a first-degree murder conviction, the jury found Navarro guilty of obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, and carrying a dangerous weapon. He faces a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“This murder was marked by an unspeakable brutality,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. “Today’s first-degree murder conviction ensures that the defendant will be held accountable for this senseless and deplorable act of violence.”
Machen told the Blade his office couldn’t discuss certain specifics, such as the jury’s decision not to convict on the hate crime charge, prior to sentencing, which is scheduled for May 24.
A law enforcement source said juries sometimes find it difficult to grapple with bias-related charges in criminal cases because it’s hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether a defendant used bias or hatred as his or her motive in committing a crime.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the department is committed to “fully investigate” hate crimes.
“In this case, MPD investigators worked diligently with the United States Attorney’s office to gather all of the facts that were available,” Lanier said. “It is unfortunate that the jury did not find in favor of the hate bias enhancement.”
The verdict in the case came two days after Machen and D.C. police officials joined LGBT activists in speaking at a community forum on anti-gay hate crimes hosted by Foundry United Methodist Church near Dupont Circle.
Machen told forum participants about his office’s prosecution of Antwan Holcomb, 21, who was convicted March 1 by a D.C. Superior Court jury of first-degree murder while armed in the December 2009 murder of gay District resident Anthony Perkins. Witnesses testified that Holcomb was overheard boasting about meeting Perkins on a gay telephone chat line and luring him to a secluded spot in Southeast D.C., where he shot him in the head inside Perkins’ car.
Machen told the forum his office considered but ruled out charging Holcomb with a hate crime in connection with the Perkins murder.
A statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office said witnesses testified during Navarro’s week-long trial that he became angry at Massey about a month before the murder when people saw someone carry him out of the apartment building where Massey lived while his pants were falling down.
The statement says witnesses saw Massey lean over to “pull up the defendant’s pants for him” while teenagers began laughing at Navarro. Some of the teens began teasing Navarro by “saying Mr. Massey was going to make the defendant ‘his next bitch,’” the U.S. Attorney’s office statement says.
The statement says witnesses reported that Navarro turned toward Massey and gave him the “evil eye.”
A source familiar with the case said the building where Massey lived was known as a place where illegal drugs were sold and sometimes used. The source said Navarro was being carried out of the building with his pants falling because he was highly impaired due to alleged drug use and apparently was unable to walk.
According to the statement, during the following month, Navarro became the target of rumors questioning his sexual orientation. It says that on at least one occasion he was overheard “loudly denying the rumors and vowing to kill Mr. Massey.”
On Nov. 6, 2009, Navarro knocked on the door of Massey’s apartment at 4211 2nd St., N.W., and asked, “Where’s the faggot,” the statement says. It says someone answered the door and told Navarro that Massey was in the bedroom.
The statement says witnesses reported that Navarro then went into the kitchen, grabbed a “large butcher knife,” walked into the bedroom and “without any warning began stabbing Mr. Massey repeatedly.”
It says Massey died on the scene. An autopsy later revealed that he had been stabbed between 18 and 20 times, including 15 times in the back.
“In the days that followed, the defendant threatened witnesses, burned his clothes, and told relatives he would not be around for a while,” the statement says. “Five days after the murder, the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force arrested the defendant in a hotel room in Southwest D.C.,” the statement says.
The statement says that during his trial, Navarro testified that he acted in self-defense, saying “he did not know Mr. Massey and that Mr. Massey attacked him for no apparent reason.”
Says the statement, “The defendant testified that he believed Mr. Massey was either going to kill him or rape him.”
Attempts to reach Navarro’s court appointed attorney, Nathan I. Silver II, for comment were unsuccessful.
A.J. Singletary, chair of Gays & Lesbians Opposing Violence, said the group appreciates the U.S. Attorney’s office’s decision to charge Navarro with a hate crime in the Massey murder.
“As this case shows, it is ultimately up to the jury in the end, but it’s important to fiercely prosecute these cases to stem the growing level of hate in our community,” Singletary said.
He said GLOV will write a community impact statement to be submitted to the judge prior to Navarro’s sentencing that “conveys the effects of this crime on the LGBT community.”
Singletary also noted that Navarro, with the help of his attorney, sought to use a form of the so-called “gay panic defense” in the case.
In past cases, attorneys representing defendants charged with killing gay men have invoked the gay panic defense to persuade juries that their client lost control of his actions due to a fear of homosexuality and lashed out and killed the victim in a state of temporary insanity.
Gay rights attorneys have pointed to evidence showing that some defendants using this defense sought out and targeted gay victims for and assault and robbery and invoked the gay panic defense after being caught.
“We all must be vigilant to make sure that nothing remotely close to a gay panic defense is seriously considered, or worse, upheld in court,” Singletary said. “Police and prosecutors must always be skeptical when they hear the gay panic defense, which as this case shows, is prevalent and dangerous.”