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Trial begins in Wone murder case

Judge blocks evidence on alleged paralytic drug, S&M restraints

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A long-awaited trial opened this week for three gay men implicated in the murder of attorney Robert Wone, who was found stabbed to death inside the men’s Dupont Circle area townhouse in August 2006.

Joseph Price, 39, his domestic partner, Victor Zaborsky, 44, and the couple’s roommate, Dylan Ward, 39, have been charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy and evidence tampering in connection with Wone’s murder. If convicted on all three charges, the men face a possible maximum sentence of 38 years in prison.

Authorities have yet to charge anyone with the murder itself, a development that has created an air of mystery and intrigue and has captured the interest of the gay community as well as local and national media.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys said they could present 80 or more witnesses and expect the trial to last as long as 10 weeks. Jury selection was scheduled to begin Wednesday at D.C. Superior Court, with opening arguments set for Monday.

Judge Lynn Leibovitz ruled Tuesday against the defense team’s attempt to separate the joint case so that each defendant could be tried individually rather than together in a shared trial.

The defense argued that the men should be tried separately because it would be impossible for prosecutors to avoid violating constitutionally mandated rules of evidence that statements made by one defendant can’t be used against another defendant in a joint trial. But Leibovitz said the defendants’ rights would be protected by strict limits she imposed on the prosecution concerning the introduction of the defendants’ statements about each other.

Defense attorneys were especially concerned about prosecutors’ plans to show jurors videotaped interviews of each of the defendants by homicide detectives conducted shortly after the murder. At Leibovitz’s instruction, prosecutors said they would edit the videos to remove any statements by the defendants that would incriminate a co-defendant.

After months of pre-trial wrangling over the admissibility of evidence, Leibovitz forced prosecutors in the days before the trial began to withdraw several key elements in their case, including allegations that the crime scene was cleaned of blood.

Under pressure that Leibovitz would rule against them and claims by the defense that the government lacked sufficient evidence, prosecutors also agreed not to introduce testimony that Wone may have been immobilized with a paralytic drug or restrained by S&M devices found in the men’s house before being stabbed three times in the chest.

Also excluded was any testimony by police regarding the collection of S&M devices they found in the house, including restraining harnesses, face masks, books about sadomasochism, and a device used to administer an electric shock to a person during sexual activity.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner, the lead prosecutor in the case, has said introduction of the S&M devices as evidence was intended to show that Wone might have been restrained at the time he was stabbed.

Kirschner has said the government nonetheless remains confident it has sufficient evidence to prove that the killer “is someone known to the defendants” and that the three men conspired to obstruct the police investigation into the crime.

Kirschner has said he also remains optimistic that the government will demonstrate to the jury that Wone was not murdered by some “unknown, unseen, phantom intruder,” as the defense has alleged.

In pleading not guilty to the charges, the three gay men have said through their attorneys that an intruder entered their house through a rear door while they were asleep and killed Wone.

Wone, a friend of Price since the two attended Virginia’s College of William & Mary, spent the night at the men’s house on Swann Street, N.W., after working late at his nearby office. Wone’s wife, Kathy Wone, and family members have said Wone was straight.

The defendants have retained an experienced and highly regarded team of nearly one dozen defense attorneys, including former prosecutors such as the openly gay former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti.

Since Price, Zaborsky and Ward were indicted in the case in 2008, the attorneys have methodically challenged nearly every piece of evidence and legal theory advanced by the government, accusing prosecutors of “manufacturing” a sensational case that isn’t supported by the facts.

In a final series of pre-trial hearings over the past month, Kirschner, chief of the homicide division at the U.S. Attorney’s office, and his smaller team of prosecutors, have sought to defend a case built largely around the aspects of a stabbing death reportedly committed by an outside intruder that were conspicuously missing in the Wone murder.

Citing the autopsy and crime scene findings, prosecutors note that although Wone was stabbed three times in the chest area, including once in the heart, there was hardly any blood on the guest room bed where he was found or on the floor or walls. This prompted prosecutors to conclude in a lengthy arrest affidavit released in October 2008 that someone in the house had “cleaned” the crime scene.

The affidavit points to an autopsy finding that the three stab wounds on Wone’s chest area were surgical-like and undistorted rather than the jagged cuts usually found on a stabbing victim, who would be expected to recoil in pain and move around in an effort to defend himself — even if he were sleeping in a bed, as the defendants say was the case with Wone.

Additionally, there were no defensive wounds on Wone’s hands or arms that are normally found on victims stabbed more than once, who traditionally position their arms to deflect the path of a knife-wielding attacker, prosecutors have said.

The arrest affidavit citing these findings pointed to a theory by the medical examiner that Wone appeared to have been immobilized by a paralytic drug, which likely prevented him from moving during a violent stabbing attack. The autopsy also found several needle marks on Wone’s body that were inflicted before he died, further pointing to the possible injection of a powerful drug before the stabbing.

Yet another autopsy finding of semen in and around Wone’s genital area and rectum prompted prosecutors to initially assert that Wone had been sexually assaulted at the time of the murder.

All of this, prosecutors said, made it clear that Wone could not have been murdered by a burglar or home intruder who entered the house, stabbed Wone and quickly fled.

The defense, however, has argued in pre-trial hearings that the paralytic drug theory should not be introduced as evidence because no such drug could be detected in Wone’s body from chemical tests. The defense also argued that semen is normally found to be secreted when men die and that the government failed to present any evidence that Wone had been sexually assaulted or restrained at the time of the murder.

Instead, defense attorneys announced they plan to call a controversial cardiologist as a witness who will testify that a stab wound to the heart can instantly stop the heart and immobilize the person stabbed. This development, defense attorneys have said, would explain why Wone didn’t move or recoil when stabbed two more times.

The defense said it would also present expert witnesses who will claim the bleeding in Wone’s case was mostly internal, explaining why the crime scene lacked large quantities of blood.

Agreeing with the defense that the government failed to produce sufficient evidence that a paralytic drug was administered, and that Wone was sexually assaulted or restrained by S&M sex devices, Leibovitz either ruled against admission of these theories or persuaded prosecutors not to bring them up at trial.

Kirschner has said the government’s case nevertheless remains strong.

With no evidence of a forced entry, no evidence that anything was taken from the house and no signs that anything was disturbed or disrupted, he has said prosecutors will call on the jury to conclude that an intruder or burglar could not have killed Wone and that the defendants had to know who was responsible for the murder — even if the government doesn’t have sufficient evidence to charge anyone with Wone’s death.

But in a comment at one of the recent pre-trial hearings, lead defense attorney David Schertler called the reasoning “ridiculous,” saying people are killed in the city “all the time” by home invaders and during botched burglaries.

“All you have to do is read the newspapers,” he said.

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District of Columbia

Activists, policy makers mark Celebrate Bisexual Day in D.C.

BiPlus Organizing US hosted event at HRC

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Adrian Shanker, senior advisor for LGBTQI+ health equity in the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, speaks at a Bisexual Awareness Day event at the Human Rights Campaign on Sept. 23, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Cal Benn)

BiPlus Organizing US on Saturday hosted a Celebrate Bisexual Day event at the Human Rights Campaign.

Fiona Dawson, co-founder of BiPlus Organizing US, and Mélanie Snail, committee member of the organization, emceed the event. HRC Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Rebecca Hershey welcomed attendees. 

Heyshey discussed her journey as a bisexual, mixed race, Jewish woman. Hershey paraphrased Adrienne Maree Brown, stating “change is coming, we are creating change.” 

PFLAG Learning and Inclusion Manager Mackenzie Harte gave a presentation on the history of bisexual identities, defined terms surrounding gender and sexuality and went over statistics of discrimination and health disparities that bisexual individuals face.

Harte’s presentation noted 48 percent of bisexual individuals reported an annual income of less than $30,000, compared to 30 percent of gay men, 39 percent of lesbians and 28 percent of all adults in the U.S. 

Harte went on to say 28 percent of bisexual students report having attempted suicide; and bisexual people have a higher risk of mood disorders, substance abuse and mental illness than their lesbian, gay, or straight cohorts. Bisexual people of all genders face higher rates of sexual assault than those same peers. One reason for these statistics is isolation: 39 percent of bisexual men and 33 percent of bisexual women report not being out to any health care provider, and only 44 percent of bisexual youth report having an adult they could turn to if they were sad. 

Harte also spoke about the Bisexual Manifesto, which the Bay Area Bisexual Network wrote in 1990. 

“The bisexual manifesto very intentionally was not binary,” Harte said.

They said the text works against the stigma and stereotypes that claim bisexuality is confined to “male, female.” 

Tania Israel, a bisexual advocate and psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared some of her bisexual haikus, which she calls, “bikus.”

Dawson moderated the next panel.

Panelists included Nicole Holmes, a bisexual advocate and public health professional, National Center for Transgender Equality Communications Director Leroy Thomas and NCTE Policy Counsel Kris Tassone. 

The panel talked about how shame and stigma drive the statistics that negatively impact the bisexual community. Another word that came up as a driving force was “intersectionality.” 

Holmes said that when it comes to intersectionality, it’s important to not just “list identities,” but to look deep into “the purpose behind why we are talking about intersectional identities” in the first place.

Adrian Shanker, senior advisor on LGBTQ+ Health Equity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about health equity for the bisexual community. 

“Striving for health equity remains a core priority. It also remains an unmet dream,” said Shanker. “Queer people have always had to be our own health advocates.” While health equity may not be here yet, Shanker says there is much in the works for the LGBTQ community, bisexuals specifically. 

Shanker cited a National Cancer Institute funding opportunity that invites research proposals to cancer care for sexual and gender minorities, stating bisexual specific proposals are welcome. The impending potential government shutdown may postpone it. 

The Biden-Harris administration is also working to ban so-called conversion therapy at the federal level. Additionally, 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, began a program to offer specialized support for LGBTQ youth and young adults last year. 

Shanker said bisexual people should prioritize preventative screenings for skin cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer, regular cervical and anal pap tests, mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies. 

“If you have a body part, get it screened,” said Shanker. 

Megan Townsend, senior director of entertainment research and analysis for the GLAAD Media Institute, did a presentation on bisexual representation in the media and opportunities for advancement. 

 “I want to see bi+/pan colors displayed on the White House,” said Dawson. “I want every national LGBTQIA+ organization to be talking about us, to put our concerns front and center.”

The data presented can be found here.

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Delaware

Flight attendants union endorses Sarah McBride

Del. lawmaker would be first transgender member of Congress

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Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride speaks at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in D.C. on April 10, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Delaware congressional candidate Sarah McBride has earned the support of the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s most prominent flight attendant union.

It’s the second big labor endorsement for McBride after the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27’s endorsement. The Association of Flight Attendants praised her for spearheading efforts to bring paid family and medical leave to Delaware, which will take effect in 2026. 

“Sarah’s record in the Delaware Senate shows that she understands how to work collaboratively, build power and make big things happen,” the union’s president, Sara Nelson, wrote in a press release shared exclusively with the Washington Blade. “That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy.”

McBride also announced her support for creating a list of abusive passengers and banning them from flying. Each airline has a list of passengers banned from flying, but airlines don’t share the lists with each other, though Delta Air Lines has asked them, because of “legal and operational challenges,” as a representative for the airline industry trade group Airlines of America told a House committee in September 2021.

“Right now, someone can be violent towards a flight attendant or another passenger and walk directly off of that flight and onto one with a different airline to endanger more people,” an Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson wrote in a statement. 

The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would put the Transportation Security Administration in charge of building the database of passengers fined or convicted of abuse and has bipartisan support but has sat idly in committee since March. It failed to pass last year, and civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have charged that the list would disproportionately target people of color and strip and a better step to reducing hostility would be making flights more comfortable. Reports of defiant and unruly passengers have more than doubled between 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022.

“I thank the Association of Flight Attendants for endorsing our campaign,” McBride wrote in the press release. “It’s important that we recognize and celebrate the symbiotic relationship between strong, unionized workforces and the continued growth of employers here in our state.”

The union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 19 airlines is putting pressure on airlines to grant union demands in contract negotiations. At American Airlines, unionized flight attendants voted to authorize a strike — putting pressure on the airline to accede to its demands. Flight attendants at Alaska Airlines say they are ready to strike but have not voted to authorize one yet. United Airlines flight attendants picketed at 19 airports around the country in August, ratcheting up the pressure. 

The union’s endorsement adds to a growing list of McBride endorsements, including 21 Delaware legislators, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Human Rights Campaign, EMILY’s List, and Delaware Stonewall PAC. McBride, who would be the first openly transgender politician in Congress, has powerful connections in Washington — including with the White House — and is favored to win Delaware’s lone House seat. 

A poll commissioned by HRC shows her leading the pack of three candidates vying for the seat — 44 percent of “likely Democratic voters” told pollster company Change Research, which works with liberal organizations. The poll of 531 likely Delaware Democratic primary voters, though, was conducted only online — meaning those with less familiarity or access to the internet may not have been counted — and Change Research’s methodology for screening likely voters is unclear. The company also did not provide a breakdown of respondents by age, gender, and race, but says it uses an algorithm to make the results representative.  

Nelson said McBride’s time in Delaware’s state Senate shows her prowess in building power and working collaboratively.  

“That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy,” she wrote.

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Virginia

Lawsuit seeks to force Virginia Beach schools to implement state guidelines for trans, nonbinary students

Va. Department of Education released new regulations in July

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(Bigstock photo)

Two parents in Virginia Beach have filed a lawsuit that seeks to force the city’s school district to implement the state’s new guidelines for transgender and nonbinary students.

NBC Washington on Friday reported Cooper and Kirk, a D.C.-based law firm, filed the lawsuit in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

The Virginia Department of Education in July announced the new guidelines for which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked. Arlington County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools and Prince William County Schools are among the school districts that have refused to implement them. 

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