A D.C. Superior Court grand jury in August 2014 took the unusual step of handing down a hate crime indictment in an anti-gay assault case after a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not recommend the case be listed as a hate crime, according to one of the grand jurors who heard the case.
The former grand juror, who spoke to the Washington Blade on condition of not being identified, said witnesses, including a police detective and the gay male victim, told the grand jury that then 20-year-old Christina Lucas and her twin brother Christopher Lucas knocked the gay male victim to the ground and punched and kicked him while shouting anti-gay names.
A police report says witnesses told police that Christina Lucas slashed the victim’s face with a sharp object while he was lying on the ground shortly after calling him a “faggot motherfucker.”
Court records show that at the time of her arrest, Christina Lucas told police she is a lesbian and shouldn’t rightfully be accused of committing an anti-gay hate crime.
Police and prosecutors said the incident occurred on Oct. 19, 2013 at the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Harvard Street, N.W. The police report says the assault began shortly after the victim and his mother and female cousin left a party at a nearby house and were attempting to hail a taxicab.
“The only reason that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has brought this case against the Lucas’s as an assault with a hate crime attachment was because the grand jury insisted upon it,” said the former grand juror. “If it had been left up to the U.S. Attorney’s Office a hate crime would not have been attached,” the former grand juror said.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said strict confidentiality requirements pertaining to grand juries prevent his office from commenting on any aspect of the grand jury’s deliberations over the prosecution of the Lucas siblings.
“We are barred by law from violating the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, and so we are unable to comment regarding that process,” he said.
Court records show that the grand jury indicted Christina and Christopher Lucas on a charge of aggravated assault while armed with a hate crime designation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Renzi Jennings, the lead prosecutor in the case, made a strong presentation for a hate crime conviction during a two-week-long trial in May before a regular Superior Court jury. After less than a day of deliberations, the jury found the two guilty as charged of committing a hate-related aggravated assault while armed.
The trial jury also found Christopher Lucas guilty of a separate charge of simple assault stemming from the allegation by police that he punched the victim’s cousin in the face during the October 2013 altercation when she attempted to stop the attack against the victim.
On June 29, D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams sentenced the Lucas siblings to one year in jail and five years of supervised probation upon their release, a sentence that police and prosecutors believe is far too lenient, according to a police source.
Attorneys representing Christopher and Christina Lucas did not respond to a request by the Blade for comment.
The former grand juror said Jennings may have been one of two female prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that presented the Lucas case before the grand jury. But now, nearly a year later, the grand juror wasn’t certain that Jennings was one of the two prosecutors that didn’t ask for a hate crime indictment.
“They sort of hemmed and hawed,” the former grand juror said when recounting the two prosecutors’ response to questions by grand jurors over why they didn’t include a hate crime designation in their proposed indictment.
“They never really said we didn’t do it because we didn’t think it was this,” said the grand juror. “They just sort of said, well, we brought it in this way. And if you guys want to add a hate crime I guess you could do so.”
The grand juror added: “I came home really upset that first day because it was clear to me. We heard the witnesses. We heard the mother. We heard the cousin. We heard the police …We heard from the victim himself. It was clear to me it was a hate crime, and they weren’t presenting it that way at all.”
According to the former grand juror, several of the 21 grand jurors hearing the case were troubled further after they told the two prosecutors they wanted to indict the case as a hate crime but the indictment form given to them a short time later made no mention of a hate crime or bias-related charge.
When one of the grand jurors insisted that the indictment include a hate crime attachment the 21 members of the grand jury voted unanimously to add the hate crime designation to the main charge of aggravated assault while armed, said the former grand juror who spoke to the Blade.
“And when they brought it back the second time the hate crime had been added to it because we had insisted on it in the initial vote,” the grand juror said.
Experts familiar with the U.S. grand jury system have sometimes referred to grand juries acting in this way as a “runaway” grand jury.
A paper on the website of the University of Dayton School of Law says historically, many U.S. grand juries in the 19th century were independent-minded and assertive but by the 20th century grand juries had “pretty much” come under the control of prosecutors.
“A runaway grand jury is an exception to this rule – the grand jurors ignore the prosecutor(s) and start making their own decisions,” the paper says.
LGBT activists familiar with the case of the Lucas siblings said that while they were pleased that the U.S. Attorney’s Office diligently prosecuted the case as a hate crime at the trial, they were troubled over the former grand juror’s account that the office initially chose not to ask the grand jury to hand down a hate crime indictment.
“If that’s not a hate crime, I don’t know what is,” said Earl Fowlkes, executive director of the D.C.-based national LGBT advocacy group Center for Black Equity and president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.
“The fact is the grand jury took the opportunity to do the right thing, not the U.S. Attorney,” Fowlkes said. “But this is not the first time this has happened. There must be some reason why the U.S. Attorney’s Office is so reluctant to do this. There’s been case after case after case.”
Fowlkes was referring to concerns raised by LGBT activists going back more than 10 years about cases in which LGBT people in D.C. have been attacked and murdered and the activists believed the case should be listed as a hate crime but the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not designate it with such a listing.
He noted, among others, the case of 23-year-old transgender woman Deoni JaParker Jones, who was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Northeast D.C. in February 2012. Jones’ parents and friends are convinced she was targeted by the man charged with her murder because of her status as a trans woman. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it had insufficient evidence to file a hate crime charge in the case.
In a separate case in September 2008, Tony Randolph Hunter, a gay man leaving his car to go to a gay bar on 9th Street, N.W., was punched in the face by one of several young men walking past him on the street. Hunter fell to the ground, hitting his head on the pavement. He died a short time later at a hospital of a severe brain injury.
The assailant said Hunter groped him in a sexually provocative way, something Hunter’s friends said he would never have done. His friends and community activists became outraged when the U.S. Attorney’s Office ruled out a hate crime and charged the attacker with a misdemeanor simple assault. Again, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it lacked sufficient evidence to list the case as a hate crime or to elevate the charge to murder, as requested by some local activists.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has to be answerable to the community,” said Fowlkes.
“This is a longstanding sore point,” said Rick Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office seems bent on ignoring laws it doesn’t like. They are not answerable to District voters or our elected officials, and it shows.”
Dale Edwin Sanders, a local attorney who practices criminal law, said prosecutors are sometimes reluctant to charge a defendant with a hate crime out of concern that it could confuse jurors in a trial and make it more difficult to get a conviction on the underlying charge.
“I think a lot of prosecutors think it is a cumbersome, unnecessary encumbrance upon their ability to get a conviction on the main crime, whether it’s robbery or murder or whatever,” Sanders said. “It complicates the case for them.”
D.C. attorney Chris Farris, former president of the local group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) has said prosecutors have the ability to work around any complications created by a hate crime designation. He has criticized the U.S. Attorney’s Office for failing to prosecute cases of anti-LGBT violence as hate crimes.
Miller, the U.S. Attorney’s spokesperson, points out that his office “vigorously prosecuted” as a hate crime the case against the Lucas twins at their trial.
He also pointed to the case of David Morris, 33, a D.C. man sentenced July 8 to eight years in jail for the brutal beating of a 52-year-old male co-worker whom Morris claims made a “sexual overture toward him.” Miller notes that the U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained a guilty plea from Morris of assault with intent to kill that is designated as a hate crime based on the victim’s perceived sexual orientation.
“[T]he U.S. Attorney’s Office weighs the facts and evidence in each case and aggressively seeks bias enhancements when it is appropriate to do so,” Miller told the Blade in a written statement. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has zero tolerance for violent crimes driven by ignorant prejudice and will continue to seek sentencing enhancements on behalf of victims of such offenses,” he said.
Fowlkes said he plans to arrange for the Stein Club to call a community meeting to which representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be invited to discuss concerns over its handling of what activists believe to be anti-LGBT hate crimes.