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Family calls for hate crime probe in Betts murder case

One defendant sentenced to 40 years; another pleads guilty

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Jennifer Altomare, sister of murder victim Brian Betts, with attorney Gloria Allred. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Speaking through an attorney known for taking on high-profile celebrity cases, the family of gay D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts Tuesday called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Betts’ murder in April was motivated by anti-gay bias.

Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who has been retained by Betts’ parents, discussed the possible hate crime angle to the case during a news conference at a courthouse in Rockville, Md., minutes after a judge sentenced defendant Alante Saunders, 19, to 40 years in jail for Betts’ murder.

Betts was found shot to death April 15 in the second floor bedroom of his Silver Spring, Md., house. Saunders and three other teenage males were charged with murder in connection with the case a short time later.

Authorities said Saunders met Betts through a sex chat line and hatched a plan with the other three youths to commit a robbery. Defense attorneys and prosecutors said the youths did not intend to kill Betts and attributed the shooting to a “robbery that went bad.”

Police identified Saunders as the shooter.

“Brian’s family retained me to represent them as victims in the criminal case,” said Allred, who has hosted a radio talk show specializing in legal issues.

“The family has also retained me to explore whether or not Brian’s murder should also be prosecuted under the new Matthew Shepard federal hate crimes law,” she said.

“Brian was a gay man and we believe an investigation should be opened under that law to determine whether a hate crime has or has not been committed by defendant Saunders and if it has whether it is appropriate to proceed with a federal prosecution under that law.”

Police and prosecutors said an investigation found that Saunders and Betts met through a sex chat line and that Betts invited Saunders, who expressed an interest in seeing him, to his house. Sources familiar with the case have said the chat line caters to gay men seeking other men for sex, but authorities have declined to identify the chat line by name.

Saunders pleaded guilty last month to first-degree felony murder in connection with the case. As part of a plea bargain arrangement, prosecutors agreed to ask Montgomery County District Court Judge John Debelius to sentence Saunders to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended.

Debelius agreed to the request at a sentencing hearing Tuesday following emotional statements delivered by nine family members and friends of Betts, including Betts’ mother, Doris Betts, his father, Delbert Betts, and sister, Jennifer Altomare. Nearly all of them wept as they described Betts, 42, as an extraordinary educator, mentor, loyal family member and friend.

“When I received word that our son had been killed in his own home, my world crumpled around me,” said Doris Betts. “These were supposed to be the golden years for me, but instead they will be the saddest years of my life.”

The judge also agreed to a request by defense attorney David Felsen that he recommend that Saunders be placed in a special state correctional facility that provides vocational training.

Debelius noted that under Maryland law, Saunders is eligible to apply for parole after serving 20 years.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, the second of the three other men charged in Betts’ murder, Sharif Lancaster, 19, pleaded guilty to robbery and use of a handgun during commission of a felony as part of a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. Prosecutors agreed to drop an initial charge of first-degree felony murder against Lancaster.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 11 and faces a possible maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.

The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office and defense attorneys have said discussions were underway to arrange plea bargains for the remaining two defendants, Joel Johnson, 19, and Deontra Gray, 18.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told reporters at the courthouse that his office investigated the possibility that Betts’ murder was a hate crime and could not find evidence to substantiate a bias related motive to the case.

“If we had seen evidence of a hate crime, we would have charged it,” he said. “And we have an advantage. We’ve seen the evidence.”

Gay rights attorneys have said state and local prosecutors sometimes don’t recognize the nuances of evidence that others might interpret as bias related elements of cases involving gay victims. They note that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act gives federal prosecutors through the Justice Department authority to overrule local prosecutors and initiate a federal hate crimes charge if supported by a federal probe.

At her courthouse news conference Allred declined to disclose evidence she knows of to support a hate crime, saying it would be improper to discuss evidence until the cases of all of the four defendants are completed.

Some gay activists have speculated that a bias or hate related element might be present in the case if the defendants selected the chat line to specifically target a gay man for a crime.

McCarthy and other prosecutors with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office have refused so far to disclose specific details about what Sanders said to Betts through the chat line and the events that led to his firing the gun he used to shoot Betts.

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Arts & Entertainment

Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight dazzle at AIDS Healthcare Foundation World AIDS Day Concert at Kennedy Center

Renowned vocalists delivered show-stopping performances

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Patti LaBelle performs onstage during World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) hosted its 2022 World AIDS Day Concert on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at the concert hall of The Kennedy Center in D.C. Renowned multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalists Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight delivered show-stopping performances to the packed crowd, which included supporters, dignitaries such as: Harold Phillips, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; White House Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and New Orleans Mayor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and more, in a night of hope and celebration.

The legendary Gladys Knight performs at the Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington. (Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS care provider, currently operating in 45 countries. The concert is held every year to commemorate World AIDS Day, observed internationally each year on Dec. 1. This year also marked the global organization’s 35th anniversary. 

At the event, longtime humanitarian and AIDS advocate, Princess Diana was honored, posthumously, with AHF’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Under its “Keep the Promise!” banner, AHF also acknowledged progress made in the global fight against HIV and AIDS and continues to raise awareness about “The Other Pandemic” as a reminder of the significant work still to be done on HIV/AIDS, as well as remembering the lives that have been lost over the years.  

Legendary entertainers Patti LaBelle (L) Gladys Knight (C) and AHF President Michael Weinstein, together at The Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington. (Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, said, “As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS around the globe, World AIDS Day annually provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS today, as well as reminding leaders and the community of the work that still remains to address this epidemic. From providing compassionate AIDS hospice care in those darkest early days to growing to become the largest global AIDS organization today, now providing lifesaving care and treatment to more than 1.7 million people around the globe, we also celebrate the tireless work of all those who help make today’s AHF possible: our staff, Board, affiliate organizations and affinity groups, friends, family and elected officials and community partners across the globe, but most of all, our clients and patients—with our annual 2022 World AIDS Day event. It was a momentous night to host our World AIDS Day concert at The Kennedy Center for the first time, and welcome back the legendary Patti LaBelle, and have another great American icon, Gladys Knight join us, while also being able to honor the legacy and humanitarian work of the late Princess Diana.”

President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein and Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Harold Phillips attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee and Patti LaBelle attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Derek J. attends World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
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District of Columbia

Matthew Shepard portrait dedicated at National Cathedral

Gay Wyoming student killed in 1998 hate crime honored in daylong ceremony

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Judy and Dennis Shepard stand in front of a portrait of their son, Matthew. Matthew Shepard was honored at a ceremony on Dec. 1, at Washington National Cathedral. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in a 1998 anti-gay hate crime while tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., was to be honored at a ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 1, at Washington National Cathedral dedicating a newly commissioned portrait of Shepard.

Officials at the cathedral said the portrait by artist Kelly Latimore and commissioned by LGBTQ members of the Cathedral staff, is the only artistic image of Matthew Shepard created in collaboration with Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who were present during the ceremony.

Matthew Shepard’s ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in 2018, 20 years after his death. The Cathedral announced in a statement this week that the Dec. 1 dedication of the Shepard portrait would also take place on what would have been Shepard’s 46th birthday.

A Thanksgiving and Celebration of Matthew Shepard service was held on October 26, 2018 at the Washington National Cathedral. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“The horrific murders at Club Q in Colorado Springs are a tragic reminder that our LGBTQ friends and family continue to be targeted for who they love, and Matthew Shepard’s legacy reminds us of the urgency to confront bigotry and embrace people of all backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations,” said The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, in a statement.

Events surrounding the portrait dedication began with a 7 a.m. online prayer service “to celebrate and recall Matthew Shepard’s life,” the statement released by the Cathedral says. The service was led by Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

The Cathedral next hosted a preview of the portrait for the news media at 10:30 a.m., where Dennis and Judy Shepard talked about the portrait and their son’s life and the impact his death had on the nation’s understanding of hate crimes.

“It’s amazing how similar and what a great job that Kelly [Latimore] has done to make it look like Matt and showing the essence of Matt,” Dennis Shepard told the Washington Blade while viewing the portrait in the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where the portrait was on display.

Artist Latimore, who also spoke to reporters during the morning briefing at the chapel, said he was moved in his discussions with Judy and Dennis Shepard while getting ready to begin work on the painting by copies of dozens of letters they sent him that had been sent to the Shepards by people across the country after their son’s death.

Latimore included written excerpts from dozens of those letters as the background to his portrait of Matthew Shepard, which can be seen and read when standing close to the portrait.

Artist Kelly Latimore (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

“Matthew will not be forgotten,” an excerpt from one of the letters on the portrait says.
Dennis and Judy Shepard created the Matthew Shepard Foundation shortly after Matthew’s death, which has been credited with playing a lead role in advocating for the passage by Congress in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The measure was the first federal hate crime statute that expanded the coverage of the federal hate crimes law to include a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class.

President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on Oct. 22, 2009. (Washington Blade archive photo by Michael Key)

The Cathedral was to open its St. Joseph’s Chapel from 2-5 p.m. on Thursday to visitors where the Matthew Shepard portrait was on display. Dennis and Judy Shepard were scheduled to be present to greet visitors.

According to the statement released by the Cathedral, later in the evening at 7 p.m., the portrait was to be officially dedicated in a private service in the Cathedral’s crypt near the site where Shepard’s ashes were interred.

“A longtime supporter of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church, the Cathedral considers LGBTQ equality one of the great civil rights issues of the 21st century,” the statement released by the Cathedral says.

One of the two men charged with Matthew Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to a murder charge in exchange for an agreement by prosecutors not to seek a death sentence. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The other man charged in the murder, Aaron McKinney, pleaded not guilty and went to trial, where he was convicted of murder by a jury. In a dramatic statement before the judge at the conclusion of the trial, Dennis Shepard announced and he and his wife had asked prosecutors and the judge to spare McKinney from being sentenced to death, something he said McKinney did not do while fatally striking his son in the head multiple times with the barrel of a gun after the two men tied him to a fence post in a remote field outside Laramie.

The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.

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District of Columbia

Three more LGBTQ ANC candidates declared winners

At least 38 LGBTQ hopefuls elected; outcome for two more uncertain

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There will be a special election to fill the seat of Kent Boese, who withdrew his candidacy but received the most votes.

The number of known LGBTQ candidates who won election to Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats rose from 35 to 38 as the D.C. Board of Elections this week released its final, certified vote count for the Nov. 8 D.C. election.

The 38 winners were among 44 known LGBTQ candidates who ran for ANC seats this year. One of the candidates who emerged as a winner, incumbent James Tandaric of ANC 3F05 in the city’s Van Ness neighborhood, was trailing opponent Andrew Koval by just eight votes when the early vote count was released in the days following the election.

The final vote count that emerged this week shows Tandaric beat Koval by a vote of 258 to 250.

When the early vote count was released in the week after the election, the outcome of four LGBTQ ANC write-in candidates along with all write-in candidates could not be determined until the Board of Elections received a required affidavit of candidacy from the write-in candidates, which was due by Nov. 15.

When the final write-in candidate results were released earlier this week along with the names of the write-in candidates, two of the four LGBTQ write-in candidates emerged as winners, both from the Logan Circle ANC. The two are Christopher Dyer of ANC 2F05 and Matt Fouracre of ANC 2F06.

Another one of the LGBTQ write-in candidates, Charles Panfil of ANC 6E02 in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, finished in a tie with another write-in candidate. A spokesperson for the Board of Elections said tie votes in ANC elections are resolved by the drawing of lots. The spokesperson, Nicholas Jacobs, said he couldn’t immediately say when a drawing of the lot would take place.

The race for the fourth LGBTQ write-in candidate, Bradley Gallagher of ANC 1E01 in the city’s Park View neighborhood, could not be determined and a special election for that seat will have to be held, according to the Board of Election. The reason, the elections board said, is longtime gay ANC member Kent Boese, who withdrew his candidacy after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot, received the most votes. “As such, there is no winner for this contest” under the city’s election law, the Board of Elections said.

Elections board spokesperson Jacobs said a special election for that ANC seat will be called, with Gallagher and others who obtain the required number of ballot petition signatures will be allowed to run in the special election.

Boese withdrew his candidacy after he was nominated and subsequently approved by the D.C. Council to become director of the D.C. Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

If Gallagher were to win in the special election and should Panfil win the drawing of the lot following the tie vote in his race, the total number of known LGBTQ candidates elected to ANC seats would rise to 40, a record number compared to past ANC elections.

There were 33 known LGBTQ ANC candidates who won election in 2020, which was the first year the Washington Blade kept track of the known LGBTQ ANC candidates who ran and won.

A list of the 35 winning LGBTQ ANC candidates known during the week following the Nov. 8 election can be seen here.

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