July 14, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Man charged in Tony Hunter death back in jail

Robert Hannah

Robert Hanna. (Washington Blade file photo)

Strained relations between the LGBT community and prosecutors over a 2008 assault near a D.C. gay bar that led to the death of gay Maryland resident Tony Randolph Hunter resurfaced last week following the arrest of the man implicated in the Hunter case on unrelated charges.

D.C. resident Robert Hannah, 20, who served six months in jail in connection with the Hunter case, was being held in jail this week for an arrest last month for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.

The United States Attorney’s office asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to hold Hannah in custody on a misdemeanor assault charge, which it listed as an incident of domestic violence, following Hannah’s arrest earlier this year on a separate charge of possession of marijuana.

Hannah was scheduled to appear in court on Thursday for a status hearing. A judge was expected to decide whether he should continue to be held or be released while awaiting trial on the assault charge.

His latest arrests drew the attention of LGBT activists, who expressed outrage in July 2009 when a grand jury lowered the charge against Hannah from manslaughter to misdemeanor simple assault for his role in Hunter’s death.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office said they could not support a manslaughter charge, let alone a first or second-degree murder charge against Hannah, because the evidence in the case didn’t support those charges.

Police and prosecutors stated in court papers that Hannah punched Hunter in the face as the two crossed paths on the street. They said the “altercation” occurred while Hunter and a friend were walking from their car to BeBar, a gay bar on 9th Street, N.W. near the D.C. Convention Center that has since closed.

According to court records, Hannah told police at the time he was arrested in the case that he punched Hunter in self-defense after Hunter touched his crotch and buttocks in a sexually suggestive way. A witness on the scene backed up Hannah’s claim of being groped, the police report said.

However, a friend of Hunter, who said he was walking with Hunter at the time of the assault, said Hunter never touched Hannah and that Hannah and two or three other men assaulted him and Hunter in an unprovoked attack.

For nearly a year, LGBT activists criticized police and prosecutors for appearing to accept Hannah’s version of what happened. They said Hannah appeared to be invoking the so-called “gay panic” defense, in which criminals who attack gay men claim to have been sexually propositioned as an alibi.

Hannah, then 18, accepted an offer by the U.S. Attorney’s office to plead guilty to the simple assault charge. A judge later sentenced him to the maximum penalty of six months in jail for that charge.

Shortly before the sentencing, the U.S. Attorney’s office released a 14-page sentencing memorandum explaining its decision against pursuing charges of murder or manslaughter against Hannah. Among other things, the document noted that an autopsy found that Hunter was intoxicated at the time of the assault. It said the D.C. medical examiner found that a facial injury that Hunter received from being punched by Hannah was superficial and did not seriously injure him.

According to the police and medical examiner’s report, Hunter fell against a fence after being punched and stood up on his own before losing his balance and falling backwards to the ground, hitting his head on the pavement. The force of his head hitting the pavement caused a fatal brain injury that led to his death, the medical examiner concluded.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Flynn, who prosecuted the case against Hannah, told a November 2009 community meeting organized by the local group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) that the medical examiner’s report would have been used by the defense in a trial. Flynn said a jury would almost certainly have found Hannah not guilty of murder or manslaughter based on that evidence, especially the medical examiner’s assertion that Hunter’s intoxication from alcohol contributed to a loss of balance that led to his fall to the pavement.

Flynn stated in the sentencing memorandum that Hunter’s friend, who claimed the attack by Hannah was unprovoked, gave a series of conflicting statements to police that raised serious questions about his reliability as a witness had the case gone to trial.

GLOV official Christopher Farris disputes Flynn’s claim that the friend was unreliable, saying conflicting statements about a traumatic event that led to Hunter’s death shouldn’t be dismissed and could have been helpful at a trial. Farris questioned the U.S. Attorney’s office and D.C. police for failing to more aggressively pursue leads to determine whether Hannah and others who were with him targeted Hunter as a gay man.

Residents in nearby neighborhoods knew gays were arriving and leaving the area to patronize BeBar, which was well known as a gay club, Farris and other activists said.

Shaw neighborhood activist Ricky Williams, who alerted activists and the media about Hannah’s latest arrests through a series of e-mails, called on the U.S. Attorney’s office to vigorously prosecute Hannah in the current two cases.

“There is no reason why a man thrice charged with violent crimes should be able to walk the streets of my neighborhood as if nothing ever happened,” he said in one e-mail. “How many more people must suffer before anyone does anything about Mr. Hannah?”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Kemp, who is prosecuting Hannah in the current two cases, called on community members to submit to the court community impact statements at the appropriate time to explain how Hannah may have had a negative impact on the community.

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said community impact statements are submitted only if and when a defendant is convicted of a crime and is about to be sentenced by a judge.

“If he is convicted, the statements would be helpful in advance of sentencing, giving the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the court additional information that could be useful,” Miller told the Blade. “Of course, all defendants are presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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