The lead prosecutor in the Robert Wone murder case startled courtroom spectators last week when he said the government would likely drop its theory that Wone was immobilized by a paralytic drug and sexually assaulted before being stabbed to death in the Dupont Circle home of three gay men.
The disclosure by Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner at a D.C. Superior Court hearing March 12 drew visible sighs of relief from defendants Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward. Price gave a thumbs-up signal to his attorney, Bernard Grimm.
“This appears to be a major victory for the defense,” said D.C. attorney Dale Sanders, who practices criminal law in the District.
Sanders said that by withdrawing its earlier contention that Wone was sexually assaulted and drugged, prosecutors would make it easier for the defense to promote their own contention that an unidentified intruder killed Wone after entering the home of the three gay men through a rear door.
The men have been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and evidence tampering in connection with the August 2006 murder. Authorities have yet to charge anyone with the murder itself. The trial is scheduled to begin May 10.
Kirschner told D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz that prosecutors were still considering introducing other evidence at trial considered highly controversial: a collection of S&M sex toys seized by police from Ward’s bedroom, which prosecutors have said was located across the hall from where Wone was found stabbed in a second-floor guest bedroom.
Wone, a prominent Washington attorney, was friends with the three men and spending the night at their home after working late in his downtown office, the men and members of Wone’s family have said. Wone was married to a woman, and his family members said he was straight.
Leibovitz said she had yet to see sufficient evidence presented by prosecutors to justify the introduction of the “devices” at trial. She noted that defense attorneys presented arguments as to why such evidence was not relevant to the case and how it would be prejudicial to the jury.
She directed prosecutors to file a motion before April 2 explaining their rationale for introducing such evidence and said she would rule on its admissibility at that time.
Leibovitz denied a motion by the defense asking the court to order prosecutors to release more details surrounding their evidence and theories in the case, saying the government has complied with all “discovery” requirements for informing the defense of its evidence.
Last week’s hearing followed a court motion filed by prosecutors in February seeking permission to introduce evidence at trial that Price, Zaborsky and Ward engaged in possible criminal conduct not identified in the charges pending against them. Some of the alleged conduct cited in the court filing pertained to the use of S&M-related restraining devices as well as devices used to administer electrical shocks to a person’s genitals.
“Are you planning to tell the jury that he was sexually assaulted, restrained,” that sex toys were used on him and he was injected with something? Leibovitz asked Kirschner.
“We’re moving away from the sexual assault proof,” Kirschner replied. But he said prosecutors still planned to offer some evidence that “restraints” were found in Ward’s bedroom.
In response to another assertion made by prosecutors in their February court filing — that “the killer is someone known to and being protected” by Price, Zaborsky and Ward — Leibovitz asked Kirschner, ” Do you plan to say one or all of these men killed Wone?”
“Not directly,” Kirschner replied.
He said prosecutors also plan to present evidence from the autopsy of needle marks on Wone’s body, including marks he noted the government’s medical experts would show were not made by emergency medical technicians who arrived at the scene and tried to revive Wone.
Kirschner disclosed at the hearing that he had submitted a letter to the defense earlier in the day, which he also filed with the court, saying that the government obtained new information from medical experts that appeared to raise doubts over whether Wone had been sexually assaulted or immobilized by a paralytic drug.
Authorities first raised that theory in a lengthy criminal complaint filed at the time police brought criminal charges against the three men for obstruction of justice and evidence tampering.
The complaint cited an autopsy finding showing that Wone suffered three surgical-like, clean stab wounds in the chest and abdomen that could only have occurred if he were lying completely still. The complaint, and subsequent arguments by prosecutors, claimed that a person being stabbed would be expected to recoil in pain or move in a defensive way, causing the wounds to be jagged or distorted.
Prosecutors said a paralytic drug must have been administered to Wone to render him immobile, but they acknowledged that the autopsy and subsequent chemical tests could not find traces of such a drug in Wone’s body. They argued that the type of anesthesia-like drug in question usually dissipates quickly and cannot be detected in tests.
But defense attorneys say in their own court filings that they would present expert witnesses to show that such drugs are detectable in tests, and the government’s inability to detect such a drug shows it was never administered.
According to prosecutors, the sexual assault theory was based on another finding in the autopsy that traces of Wone’s semen were found inside his rectum. The defense later argued that its own experts would show that the semen had no sperm cells, indicating it was secreted naturally by the body after Wone died, as muscles relax during the post mortem processes.
Sanders said that although the apparent decision by prosecutors to put aside their earlier sexual assault and paralytic drug theory is a blow to the prosecutors’ case, other evidence obtained against the three men remains significant and strong.
He noted, among other things, that investigators found traces of blood in the lint trap of the men’s clothes dryer and in a drain outside the house; findings by evidence technicians that someone cleaned the crime scene by attempting to wipe blood spattered near the body; and that the bloody kitchen knife that the men said they found near Wone’s body bore fibers from a towel, indicating to evidence experts that Wone’s blood was wiped onto knife blade by someone, with another knife likely used to kill Wone.
Authorities also have said Wone appeared to have been dead a significant period of time before Zaborsky called 911 to report a stabbing; and rescue workers reported finding very little blood on Wone’s chest and body, indicating that someone cleaned the body before police and rescue workers were called, according to the police affidavit.
“They won this battle, but the war doesn’t look good for them,” Sanders said. “You can’t lose track of the big picture, which doesn’t look good for these guys.”