In a little-noticed development, prosecutors in Montgomery County last year dropped first-degree murder and armed robbery charges against two D.C. men arrested for the April 16, 2016 murder of transgender woman Keyonna Blakeney, 22, in her room at the Red Roof Inn in Rockville, Md.
In exchange for accepting a plea bargain by prosecutors, Keith Christopher Renier, who was 22 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced on Aug. 22, 2017 to 30 years in prison.
Arbra Arine Bethea, who was 17 at the time of Blakeney’s stabbing death, pleaded guilty to accessory to the fact-second-degree murder and was sentenced on Nov. 9, 2017 to 10 years in prison.
At the time of their arrest in May 2016 the two men, both D.C. residents, were each charged by Montgomery County police with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery in connection with Blakeney’s murder.
Those charges were later dropped as part of the plea bargain deal.
Police said that Blakeney and several acquaintances were renting rooms at the Red Roof Inn to engage in prostitution. Police said their investigation found that Bethea, who knew Blakeney, initiated a scheme with Renier to meet her at the motel for a date so he and Renier could rob her.
“Bethea made a series of calls to the victim using Renier’s cell phone just prior to arriving at the Red Roof Inn,” a police arrest affidavit says. “Once arriving at the Red Roof Inn, Bethea and Renier met with the victim in Room # 174. When the robbery was announced a struggle ensued resulting in the victim being repeatedly stabbed,” the affidavit states.
The affidavit says police linked Renier and Bethea to the murder through a confidential source that identified the men as suspects in the case. It says investigators developed additional evidence linking the two to the murder through cell phone records and interviews with an Uber driver who brought the men to the Red Roof Inn from Bethea’s residence in Southeast D.C.
The affidavit says investigators also learned that Renier and Bethea “confessed to family members that they killed the victim.”
Transgender activists condemned the murder as yet another in a long list of murders of transgender people over the past several years in the U.S., including the D.C. area.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesperson for Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, defended his office’s decision to offer the two men a deal to plead guilty, noting that they were given the maximum sentence for the offenses for which they pleaded guilty.
“Just because a case is charged a certain way does not mean the evidence substantiates that charge beyond a reasonable doubt or that the witnesses are good and credible for a jury,” Korionoff said in an email to the Washington Blade.
“Our office stands by the results of this case,” he said. “Getting thirty years behind bars for Keith Renier in a second degree murder, the maximum, shows the community that we take these crimes seriously,” he added.
“After a more thorough look at the case it was determined that the appropriate charge for Arbra Bethea was accessory after the fact,” Korionoff said. “He too got the maximum sentence for his crime, 10 years. Justice is served.”
On Aug. 16, two days before Renier was sentenced to 30 years in the Blakeney murder case, a D.C. Superior Court jury issued a verdict of not guilty for a 60-year-old D.C. man charged with the February 2012 stabbing death of transgender woman Deoni JaParker Jones, 23, at a bus stop in Northeast Washington.
The verdict shocked Jones’s family members and LGBT activists, who believed prosecutors and homicide detectives presented a strong case that defendant Gary Montgomery committed the murder. But court observers said the defense raised a number of issues challenging the evidence presented by prosecutors in a trial that began five years after Montgomery was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder while armed.
The issues brought up by the defense apparently succeeded in raising sufficient doubt in the minds of the jurors that prompted them to hand down a not guilty verdict, according to at least one court observer.
Although Korionoff did not mention the Montgomery verdict he appeared to be raising the possibility of a similar not-guilty verdict in the Blakeney murder case if his office had not offered a plea deal and obtained the guilty pleas for the lower charges.
“Imagine the State goes to trial on a more severe charge and loses both and the defendants get off Scot-free,” he said in his email to the Blade. “What would the community be upset about then?”
“Not only are we tasked to seek out justice and get a just result, but we are also charged with the responsibility to go where the evidence leads us. We are also tasked with resolving matters to economize court resources where appropriate,” he said.
Montgomery County transgender activist Dana Beyer said that based on the circumstances surrounding the Blakeney murder case she does not dispute the action taken by prosecutors.
“Most cases are pleaded out,” she said. “And with a trans case you have a risk of going to a jury. So I don’t see this as a problem,” she said concerning the way the State’s Attorney’s Office handled the case. “It seems like justice was done.”