A D.C. Superior Court jury on Tuesday found a 24-year-old District man guilty of first-degree premeditated murder while armed for allegedly using a hammer to bludgeon to death his two roommates with whom witnesses said he had sexual relations.
In its third day of deliberations the jury found Jeffrey Bernard Neal guilty of murdering Leon Young, 22, and Delano Wingfield, 23, who witnesses said were at one time his closest friends as well as roommates.
Police and prosecutors said the murders took place in June of 2014 inside a house at 1846 8th St., N.E. that was owned by Neal’s grandmother and in which Neal, Young, Wingfield, and other roommates resided at various times.
Chief Judge Robert Morin, who presided over the trial, scheduled a sentencing for Neal on Oct. 20. Under D.C. law the penalty for a conviction of first-degree murder includes a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Tuesday’s verdict followed a two-and-a-half week trial in which prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed over the motive behind the murders. From the beginning of the trial the defense argued that Neal killed Young in self-defense after Young confessed to having killed Wingfield and lunged at Neal with a knife in a jealous rage.
Prosecutors argued that the motive was unclear but was most likely due to disputes over money needed to pay the expenses for the house. They speculated that Neal killed one of his two roommates over an argument and the other because he witnessed the first murder.
Kevin J. McCants, one of two defense attorneys who represented Neal, told the Washington Blade the defense plans to appeal the verdict.
“The government, based on the emotions of this case, was overly sensational in closing arguments,” McCants said. “It was improper. It was unfair. And we’re going to appeal.”
One of two prosecutors in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shana Fulton, called on the jury in her closing arguments to base its verdict strictly on the facts of the case, which she said proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Neal was guilty.
Fulton disputed the defense’s claim that Neal killed Young in self-defense after Young lunged at him with a knife in a jealous rage after saying he had just killed Wingfield. She argued that the preponderance of evidence presented by witnesses left the actual motive behind the murders unclear, although she said it suggested that the three men fought over money needed to pay the bills for the house.
Fulton noted that Young had two jobs and paid money he thought was to go to the overhead for the house only to discover the electricity and water had been turned off because the bills weren’t paid.
She pointed to autopsy reports showing that Young was struck in the head at least 26 times by an object with a flat rounded tip that appeared to be a hammer and that Wingfield was similarly hit in the head with what appeared to be a hammer multiple times. Citing other forensic evidence she said it appeared that Young was attacked while lying down sleeping in his room, evidence she said refuted the defense claim that Neal killed young in self-defense.
While holding in her hands two hammers that homicide investigators said Neal used to crush Young and Wingfield’s skulls with multiple blows, Fulton said Neal had to consciously decide to hit the two men each and every time in an act of premeditation with the intent to kill.
“Every swing is a decision to kill,” she told the jury. “And that’s what the defendant did. These are full body swings.”
Fulton also cited statements Neal made to police that he carried Young’s body up a ladder into the attic of the house and covered it with an air mattress and put a plastic bag over Young’s head reportedly to stop the bleeding. Instead of calling police or an ambulance, Fulton continued in her closing arguments, Neal drove to Florida in Young’s car.
A police arrest affidavit states that a short time after one of Neal’s uncles discovered Young’s body in the attic after coming to the house to do routine maintenance work, police discovered Wingfield’s body buried in a shallow grave in the backyard.
McCants and fellow defense attorney Michael Madden argued that Neal killed Young in self-defense after Young lunged at him with a knife in a jealous rage upon realizing that Neal and Wingfield had become romantically closer at his own exclusion.
In closing arguments, Madden reiterated the defense case that the murders were the result of a love triangle gone badly among the three men. He noted that Young, who had been romantically involved with Neal, believed Neal was switching his romantic interests toward Wingfield.
Madden pointed to witnesses who testified that Young had threatened Neal with a knife at least once before during a dispute at the house. He also pointed to medical records showing that Young had been hospitalized several times for mental health emergencies, with one medical report stating that Young displayed “homicidal ideation.” All of this showed that Neal had reason to believe Young posed a potential danger toward him, Madden said.
Madden also pointed out that Neal returned on his own from Florida and cooperated with police about what happened between him and Young.
“He didn’t lawyer up,” Madden said.
Citing Neal’s statement to police, Madden told the jury that Neal had been asleep in his room and was awakened when he heard Young climb down from the attic.
“He is naked and he is shaking and carrying a knife,” Madden quoted Neal as saying to police. When Neal asked him what happened Young told him he had just killed Delano Wingfield, Madden recounted to the jury. Then Young “came after Neal after Neil picked up Young’s phone,” Madden continued.
This prompted Neal to pick up a hammer and hit Young once as Young lunged at him with the knife, Madden said. “That did not stop Leon,” Madden said. “He hit Leon again and Leon dropped,” said Madden, who added that Neal “freaked out” and continued to hit Young for another five minutes.
Neal then did some “stupid things,” Madden said. “He cleaned up the mess” and fled to Florida, the defense attorney told the jury. But he added that Neal came back and cooperated with police.
In a rebuttal period given to prosecutors in criminal trials, prosecutor Fulton told the jury evidence showed that Neal had planned to leave the country but returned to D.C. only after he ran out of money and called on his family to send him enough money to come back.
She said that Young wrote in a personal journal submitted as evidence that he had become disillusioned over his living arrangement at the house and was in the process of arranging to move out to live with other friends he made at one of the two jobs.
“It was he who was planning to leave the house,” Fulton told the jury. “And the love triangle? Where is this coming from?” she said. “What love triangle? There is no evidence of that. It’s just what the defense attorneys said.”
Added Fulton: “Leon did not want anything to do with the defendant. He was trying to get away from the defendant.”
Although she didn’t use the term “smoking gun,” Fulton pointed out that Neal mentioned to police during a voluntary interview, at which he appeared to mix up in his own mind the two murders, that Young was naked at the time he allegedly attacked Neal with the knife except that he had a pair of socks on his feet. According to Fulton, the police report showed that it was Wingfield’s body that was found buried in the nude except for a pair of socks on his feet.
“The only person who could have known that Delano’s body had socks on was the defendant,” Fulton told the jury.
“For them to build a murder case off of socks is a tragedy and an injustice,” defense attorney McCants told the Blade. “They normally wore socks. It was an old house with wood floors. And that was a statement that has haunted us for a long period of time,” he said.
“We thought the jury would decide this case on the facts and not on what he’s not charged with – and that being the statements he made to the police,” said McCants.
In addition to finding Neal guilty on two counts of first degree murder while armed with “aggravating circumstances” for the two murders, the jury found him guilty of one count of first-degree theft and one count of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.