The United States Attorney’s office this week reversed an earlier decision to seal court records showing the outcome of its case against two young men charged with first-degree murder while armed for the January 2010 shooting death of gay Maryland resident Gordon Rivers in Southeast Washington.
At the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office, a D.C. Superior Court judge on Wednesday unsealed records showing that District resident William X. Wren, 18, had been sentenced on Jan. 26 to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to shooting Rivers five times at point-blank range inside Rivers’ car during a botched robbery.
Wren, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was charged as an adult.
The unsealed records show that Wren agreed to plead guilty last October in exchange for a government offer to lower the charge against him from first-degree felony murder while armed to second-degree murder while armed. Wren also agreed to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to kidnap Rivers while armed with co-defendant Anthony Hager, 23, and conspiracy to rob Rivers while armed with a firearm. Hager was 22 at the time of the murder.
Judge Herbert Dixon also sentenced Wren to seven years on the two conspiracy charges but agreed to a request by Wren’s defense lawyer to allow the two sentences to run concurrently, limiting the total time served to 12 years.
The U.S. Attorney’s office moved to have the court records unsealed following inquires by the Washington Blade, which discovered through unsealed court records that the government dropped its case against Hager, who was also charged with first-degree murder while armed in the River’s killing.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office determined that there was probable cause to arrest Anthony Hager in the murder of Mr. Rivers,” said William Miller, a spokesperson for the office. “However, the office later concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to meet the higher legal standard that is required to obtain and sustain a conviction.”
Miller noted that at the government’s request, the court dismissed the case “without prejudice,” which allows prosecutors to reinstate charges against Hager in the future if more evidence surfaces.
“The murder case remains under investigation,” he said.
Miller declined to disclose why prosecutors chose to seal the court records in the case against Wren, saying issues surrounding the sealing of cases are considered confidential. However, knowledgeable sources familiar with criminal cases before the D.C. Superior Court said cases are often sealed when defendants agree to cooperate with the government in the prosecution of another person charged with a crime. Such cooperation could potentially place a defendant at risk for retaliation, according to the sources, and sealing a case can sometimes protect the safety of the cooperating defendant.
Victims’ rights groups have sometimes complained that the sealing of cases also prevents the public from learning whether violent criminals are being prosecuted and sentenced appropriately.
Chris Farris, former co-chair of the D.C. group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence, said he was “outraged” that Wren could receive just 12 years for committing a murder and that Hager could get off “completely free” in the Rivers’ murder.
“Take away the gay angle, take away the history of hate crimes against our community, take away everything else, and I just find it incredibly stunning that one person in the case of a murder of someone who was fired on at point blank range five times gets 12 years in jail,” Farris said.
Court documents filed by the government and the defense in the case show that Hager allegedly conspired with Wren to force Rivers at gunpoint to drive the two to Rivers’ house in Maryland, where they planned to rob him of his valuables and steal his two vehicles. But the documents show that that Wren shot Rivers before Hager had a chance to enter the car.
Court records also show that authorities revoked Hager’s parole from an unrelated conviction for armed robbery in 2005 after learning of his arrest in the Rivers case. Miller said the parole revocation resulted in Hager being ordered to serve two more years for the earlier conviction.
Under the D.C. criminal code, Wren faced a possible maximum sentence of 70 years in prison for second-degree murder while armed with a firearm. First-degree murder while armed carries a maximum sentence of 90 years in prison under D.C. law.
Separate sentencing memorandums submitted by the defense and the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked Judge Dixon to consider mitigating factors that would justify a sentence significantly lower than the maximum sentence provided by law. Among other things, the two pointed to Wren’s cooperation with the government in the prosecution of Hager before the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to drop its case against Hager.
Defense attorney Spencer Hecht also states in his sentencing memorandum that Wren recounted that Rivers paid him for sexual encounters at Rivers’ house in Brandywine, Md., during a one-year period prior to the murder. Hecht’s sentencing memo says the sexual encounters began when Wren was 16.
“While the defendant unequivocally accepts responsibility for his extremely serious and dangerous conduct, and is extremely remorseful for taking the life of another, he offers the nature of his relationship with the decedent in mitigation,” Hecht says in his sentencing memo.
“The decedent was someone who preyed on the defendant’s youth, immaturity, and impressionability for a substantial period of time,” the memo says. “On frequent occasions, the decedent would contact the defendant and pay him to perform sex acts upon him. This is nothing less than child sexual abuse and rape – offenses which carry significant prison sentences.”
Hecht provides no evidence or substantiation of the alleged sexual encounters between Rivers and Wren other than Wren’s claim that they occurred. The sentencing memo doesn’t say where the two met or under what circumstances, only that the two met after Wren’s mother kicked him out of her home “because her live-in girlfriend believed the defendant a troublemaker.” His estrangement with his mother resulted in his having no fixed address, the memo says.
“It was during this period of time that the defendant began using and selling drugs and committing robberies of known drug dealers to support himself,” according to Hecht’s sentencing memo. “It was also during this period of time that the defendant met the decedent Gordon Rivers (aka ‘Mr. G’), when he (‘Mr. G’) propositioned him (the defendant) for paid sex,” it says.
The memo also states that Wren moved into a row house where his girlfriend lived at 2409 S St., S.E., seven months prior to the murder, saying his girlfriend’s residence provided him with a stable home. It says he has two children with his girlfriend, Breana Smith, with whom he had been in a relationship for two years at the time of the murder.
Gay activists have long complained that defendants who target gay men for assault, robbery and murder have often claimed, after being charged with such crimes, that the victim made a sexual pass at them that prompted them to assault or kill the victim in self-defense. Gay rights attorneys, who describe such a claim as the “gay panic defense,” have said prosecutors often lack the training or understanding to adequately contest this defense tactic.
Hecht did not return calls to his office seeking comment on the case and on his client’s allegations of sexual encounters between Wren and Rivers.
Miller, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said he could not comment on whether his office considered Hecht’s allegations in the sentencing memo as an attempt to invoke the gay panic defense.
In its own sentencing memorandum, the U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended that the court sentence Wren to the “middle range” of sentences available to a court for the offenses to which Wren pleaded guilty. The government sentencing memo recommends that Dixon sentence Wren to some jail time but doesn’t object to the defense recommendation that he be sentenced under the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act.
The act allows judges to waive a required minimum sentence of five years in jail for a conviction or guilty plea to second-degree murder while armed. The memo adds, “The government does not oppose a motion by the defendant for a downward departure under the sentencing guidelines.”
In his sentencing order, Dixon did not indicate that he approved the defense request for a Youth Rehabilitation Act sentence.
The government’s sentencing memo describes Rivers as “an accomplished, well-loved man with family and friends who dearly miss him.” It says he was born in Alabama and was a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy who, at the time of his death, worked as an executive assistant with Raytheon Corporation in Arlington, Va., in a job he held for five years.
The government sentencing memo says Wren’s effort to express remorse over his action and the prospects that he could turn around his life in the future don’t offset the consequence of his behavior toward Gordon Rivers.
“The defendant preyed upon Mr. Rivers by taking advantage of the trust they shared, however inappropriate the foundation of the relationship,” the memo says. “And it was the defendant, not Mr. Hager, who got in the car, put the gun to Mr. Rivers, and pulled the trigger five times.”
The memo notes that Wren was “no newcomer to armed robberies,” referring to his own admission that he committed armed robberies against drug dealers in the months prior to his arrest in the Rivers case.