With witnesses acknowledging their recollections have become less certain five and a half years later, defense attorneys representing a District man charged with the February 2012 murder of a transgender woman moved ahead with their claim at a trial this week that their client was misidentified as the murderer.
Police and prosecutors have charged Gary N. Montgomery, 60, with plunging a knife into the side of the head of Deoni JaParker Jones, 23, at a bus stop in Northeast Washington on the night of Feb. 2, 2012. Jones died in a hospital later that evening.
Montgomery, who was 55 at the time of the incident, has been charged with first-degree murder while armed in connection with Jones’ death.
Shortly after his trial began last week in D.C. Superior Court, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys, in their opening arguments, provided the jury with conflicting views on the strength of the evidence against Montgomery.
Among other things, police and prosecutors have said a motive for the murder remains unclear and they have been unable to uncover evidence to indicate the murder was a hate crime.
Jones’ mother and stepfather, Judean Jones and Alvin Bethea, have argued since the time of the murder that Montgomery targeted their daughter at the bus stop near their home at East Capitol Street and Sycamore Road, N.E., because of her status as a transgender woman.
Court records show that police and prosecutors charged Montgomery with the murder on Feb. 11, 2012, nine days after he allegedly stabbed Jones.
The incident shocked members of the LGBT community and many city officials, including then-Mayor Vincent Gray, who organized and participated in vigils at the site of the murder and called for greater efforts to curtail hatred and bias toward transgender people.
The trial began nearly five and a half years after Montgomery’s arrest. It had been postponed several times after conflicting psychiatric reports made it unclear whether Montgomery was competent to stand trial, according to court records. Montgomery has been held for most of the time since his arrest at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a city-run psychiatric facility.
Court records show that on Nov. 29, 2016, Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz cleared the way for a trial by handing down an order finding Montgomery competent to stand trial based on the findings of the latest of several psychiatric examinations.
In opening arguments last week, defense attorney Monica Douglas told the jury that prosecutors had insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Montgomery that stabbed Jones.
“This case is built on assumptions, speculations and shortcuts, and does not rely on any evidence,” the Washington Post quoted her as saying. “Mr. Montgomery was not there when she was stabbed,” the Post quoted Douglas as saying.
But prosecutors said they would present witnesses and video footage obtained from nearby security cameras linking Montgomery to the murder scene.
On Monday, one of the government’s lead witnesses, Jermaine Jackson, 41, testified that he and his girlfriend were in a vehicle that was stopped at a traffic light next to the bus stop where the incident occurred. He said that his girlfriend, who was driving, saw a man strike a woman in the head.
“She said look at that,” Jackson recounted. “Someone just hit someone. I looked. It was a lady down and a dude standing over her.”
Added Jackson: “I got out and I approached the dude. I said why did you hit that lady? He ran away and I ran after him.”
Jackson told of how he caught up with the man, grabbed him by his hooded jacket and hit him, knocking him down. He said his intention was to hold the man until police could be called to the scene. But seconds later, Jackson recounted, his girlfriend, who had entered the bus stop shelter where a bench was located, began to scream.
“I turned to her to be sure she was OK,” Jackson testified. At some point during the confusion that followed the man he had chased down got up and ran away, Jackson said. Instead of chasing him again he ran back to the bus stop and quickly discovered why his girlfriend and another woman who was at the scene were screaming.
There was a knife sticking in the head of the woman who his girlfriend saw being struck while he and his girlfriend were in their vehicle, Jackson told the jury.
In response to questions by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman, one of two prosecutors involved in the case, Jackson described the appearance of the attacker as best he could recall five and a half years after the incident. He was slimmer than himself, he appeared to have a beard, his complexion was lighter than his, and he appeared to be about 30 or 40 years old.
When pressed by defense attorney Monica Douglas during the cross examination phase of his testimony, Jackson said he could not positively identify the attacker as Montgomery. Montgomery, who was sitting at the defense table during Jackson’s testimony, was 55 years old at the time of the murder.
Prosecutors told the jury during opening arguments that at least three people identified Montgomery as being at the bus stop shortly before Jones was stabbed. According to the Washington Post, one of the witnesses, Attalah Gabriel, 30, testified that she sat next to Jones and a man sitting beside Jones at the bus stop. The man sitting next to Jones was staring at Jones “with his eyes widened,” the Post reported Gabriel as saying at the trial.
But a few minutes later, Gabriel left the bus stop to walk to a nearby Metro station and did not see what happened next, the Post reported her as saying. Under questioning Gabriel said the man she saw at the bus stop appeared to be about 30 years old, the Post reported.
Prosecutors were expected to show the jury video footage of a man entering the bus stop shelter at the time of the murder that they say at least one witness who knew Montgomery in the neighborhood identified as Montgomery, even though the image of the man on the video appears out of focus.
Court observers have said the defense would likely argue that prosecutors so far have failed to provide evidence sufficient for the jury to find Montgomery guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors Gorman and Jennifer Kerkoff have said the totality of the evidence, including circumstantial evidence, would show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Montgomery and not someone else that stabbed Jones to death.
Prosecutors were expected to finish presenting their witnesses late Wednesday or early Thursday after which the defense would begin presenting their witnesses. Observers said it was possible but unlikely the case would go to the jury before sometime next week.
Among the prosecution witnesses called last week was D.C. Police Officer Justin Markiewicz, who at the time of the murder was a member of the department’s LGBT Liaison Unit who responded to the scene on the night of the stabbing. Markiewicz testified about one of the witnesses whom police interviewed shortly after the incident.
Bethea and Judean Jones have been among those in the courtroom watching the trial since it began. Both have emerged as outspoken advocates for transgender rights since the time of Deoni Jones’ death.
“It should not have taken five and a half years to get to a trial,” Bethea told the Washington Blade last week. “This is not just painful to my wife and me but also to the LGBT community whose members only want to be able to live their lives without danger,” he said.