A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday approved a plea bargain agreement expected to result in the dismissal of a charge of simple assault against the second of two women accused of dragging a gay male drag performer by the hair at a D.C. carry-out pizzeria in June that was captured on video.
Under the agreement offered by the U.S. Attorney’s office, Raymone Harding, 28, of Gaithersburg, Md., pleaded guilty to the assault charge in exchange for being allowed to withdraw the plea and have the charge dismissed if she successfully completes 48 hours of community service over a period of six months.
The agreement also requires her to stay out of trouble, stay away from the man she was charged with assaulting — Miles Denaro, 24 — and undergo a drug test as directed by the court’s Pre-Trial Services Agency.
Judge Juliet J. McKenna approved the agreement for Harding one week after she approved an identical plea agreement for co-defendant Rachel M. Sahle, 22, also from Gaithersburg.
“This is essentially less than a slap on the wrist,” Denaro told the Blade when informed of the outcome of Friday’s court proceeding.
He said one of the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Missler, called him a little over a week ago to inform him of plans for the plea bargain offer and to get his thoughts on the matter. Denaro said Missler told him the two women would be required to perform community service work rather than jail time.
“He said allegedly the judge they are seeing is lenient so he was leaning toward doing this so that way they get community service no matter what,” said Denaro.
In a development that had not been previously disclosed, Denaro told the Blade on Friday that he was called to testify before a grand jury convened by prosecutors in July in connection with the assault charges pending against Harding and Sahle.
According to court records, the grand jury did not hand down an indictment in the case, an outcome that court observers consider unusual because grand juries usually follow the recommendation of prosecutors by approving an indictment.
The decision by prosecutors to offer the two women the plea agreement is likely to surprise LGBT activists because it came shortly after the U.S. Attorney’s office told the court it was looking into the possibility of upgrading the assault charge with a “bias” or hate crime designation.
“The government is not seeking a bias enhancement based on the results of a thorough investigation and review of the case,” William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, told the Blade.
Miller said he could not comment on whether a grand jury is convened on a specific case but said that in general grand juries are sometimes called to assist in an investigation rather than for the purpose of an indictment.
“It is used to get people to testify under oath as an investigative tool,” he said.
D.C. attorney Dale Edwin Sanders, who practices criminal law in D.C. and Virginia, said the fact that the assault against Denaro was captured on video provided prosecutors with a strong case with a good chance of obtaining a conviction against the two women had the case gone to trial.
He said Denaro’s statements that the two women made anti-transgender and anti-gay remarks toward him during and immediately after the attack made a strong case for designating the incident as a hate crime.
“I think this is ridiculously lenient for what happened,” said Sanders in referring to the plea agreement. “To me this sounds like a total whitewash.”
The June 23 incident at Manny & Olga’s pizzeria at 1841 14th St., N.W., created an uproar in the LGBT community after a customer used his cell phone to record the altercation on video and posted the video on a popular hip-hop music website, resulting in it being viewed by thousands in D.C. and across the country.
According to police and court records, the video taken by the customer and a separate video taken by security cameras at the restaurant show Denaro being punched, kicked and dragged across the floor by the hair after being knocked down by the two women. The video posted online also shows that many of the bystanders screamed and laughed as the altercation unfolded. Denaro said no one, including employees at the restaurant, intervened to stop the assault.
He said one or both of the women shouted that he was a man and a “tranny” as they hit him. According to his account of what happened, one of the women called him a “faggot” after the altercation ended when they saw him walk past them on the sidewalk outside.
Miller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the plea agreements offered to the two women are part of a widely used court “diversion/deferred sentencing” program that’s limited to misdemeanor cases involving defendants with no prior criminal record.
“Where a defendant is charged with an offense that is potentially diversion eligible, we look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the event and make a determination as to whether diversion is appropriate,” he said.
“A supervisor has to approve a simple assault case for diversion, adding another layer of scrutiny,” he added.
Hassan Naveed, co-chair of the D.C.-based Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), said the group is assessing the plea bargain agreement offered in the Denaro assault case and would issue a statement on the development shortly.
D.C. transgender activist Jeri Hughes said she was troubled over the outcome of the case, which she said appears to her as a hate crime.
“You’ve got people like trans women in jail because they are poor and turn to prostitution,” Hughes said. “And here are two people who commit a violent attack and they are going to walk. This is unacceptable.”