A D.C. Superior Court jury on Friday found a woman charged in the March 2012 shooting of a gay man inside an International House of Pancakes restaurant guilty of aggravated assault while armed and six additional firearms related charges.
The verdict followed a four-day trial in which prosecutors played for the jury a video obtained from the restaurant’s security cameras that they said showed Lashawn Yvonne Carson, 28, pull out a handgun and shoot Dante Thomas in the chest.
Thomas has since recovered from what Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Cannon, the lead prosecutor in the case, said was a gunshot wound to his liver that could have been fatal if he had not received immediate medical attention at a nearby hospital.
Police and prosecutors have said the shooting took place after two groups of friends were eating at separate tables at the restaurant in the city’s Columbia Heights section about 5:30 a.m. on March 11, 2012. An altercation leading to the shooting started after someone sitting at Carson’s table called Thomas and one or more of his friends a “faggot,” according to testimony at the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s office last year dropped a D.C. police classification of the shooting as a hate crime, which calls for a more stringent penalty.
But prosecutors instead obtained a grand jury indictment against Carson on the aggravated assault while armed charge and six other charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon and carrying a pistol without a license. When combined the charges carry a possible maximum sentence of 77 years in prison.
Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan, who presided over the trial, scheduled sentencing for Dec. 9.
Prosecutor Cannon presented to the jury a separate video showing a police interview with Carson at the Third District police station in which she confessed to having shot Thomas. The interview took place about two weeks after the shooting and shortly before her arrest.
That video, which Cannon also played during closing arguments, shows Carson sitting behind a table saying she shot Thomas “because he hit me.”
Cannon told the jury that Carson’s statement during the police interview and a similar statement she made to someone she knew, Norman Lee, that she shot Thomas because he hit her during the altercation at the IHOP restaurant indicated she had a motive for the shooting.
“It couldn’t be anybody else” that did the shooting, he said. “She is the only one who can take a shot at Dante Thomas.
Defense attorney Patrick Christmas disputed the contention by Cannon that the taped confession by Carson and the video footage proved Carson shot Thomas.
Christmas pointed to Carson’s dramatic testimony as the lead defense witness that she was pressured into making the confession by a police detective at a time when she was drunk. He argued that Norman Lee was an “unreliable” witness and should not be believed. In addition, he called Thomas a “violent person” based on a prior criminal record of acts of violence.
Christmas noted that Carson testified she, in fact, didn’t shoot Thomas. He noted that she also testified that she is bisexual and expressed disapproval at the table where she and her friends were sitting when one of the friends used the word “faggot” to describe one or more of the men sitting at Thomas’s table.
He told the jury that based on claims by several people who thought they saw a male shoot Thomas during the altercation at the restaurant they could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that LaShawn Carson shot Dante Thomas.
Christmas also argued that none of the eyewitnesses, including victim Thomas, could state definitively on the witness stand that they were certain who actually shot Thomas. Christmas noted Thomas was among the witnesses that initially told police they thought it was a male who shot him.
“The best witness for my client is strangely the man who was shot,” Christmas told the jury.
According to a police charging document, the initial exchange between the two groups triggered by the anti-gay slur led to a physical altercation.
“As the victim was attempting to walk to the cash register to pay his bill, Carson and a male friend inadvertently stood directly in his way,” a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office says. “The victim attempted to squeeze by and accidently bumped into Carson. Words were exchanged and the defendant’s male friend used a homophobic slur,” the statement says.
Government witnesses at the trial testified that a fight then broke out between the opposing groups of friends and an off-duty D.C. police detective who was seated nearby stepped in to break it up.
“At that point, according to the government’s evidence, Carson walked over, adjusted her hair, pulled out a firearm and shot the victim once in the chest,” the U.S. Attorney’s statement says.
The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for about three hours and returned a separate guilty verdict for each of the seven counts of the indictment: Aggravated assault while armed; possession of a firearm during a crime of violence or dangerous offense; assault with a dangerous weapon; possession of a firearm during a crime of violence or dangerous offense; carrying a pistol without a license (outside home or place of business); possession of unregistered firearm; and unlawful possession of ammunition.