D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams took the unusual step of calling a special hearing on July 15 to explain why she sentenced a 22-year-old lesbian to six months in jail and her twin brother, who’s straight, to one year for instigating and leading what police and prosecutors have called a brutal gay bashing attack.
Williams called the hearing just over two weeks after she handed down the sentences at a separate hearing on June 29. The victim, a 29-year-old gay man, and his mother, who witnessed the attack, testified then that the beating and face slashing of the victim that took place during the incident have had a devastating impact on their lives.
Sources familiar with the case have said police and prosecutors believe the sentences are far too lenient for a conviction in an assault that could have resulted in the victim’s death.
“I wanted to have this hearing because at the initial sentencing, admittedly, I was pretty rushed because I had a jury waiting,” said Williams, who was referring to another trial over which she was presiding.
“It’s really an opportunity for me to just talk,” she said. “And apparently, as the judge, you can just summon people and everybody has to come listen to you. So here we are.”
Saying she is someone known at the courthouse for “telling it like it is,” Williams took about 30 minutes to explain her rationale for assessing the seriousness of hate crimes as well as the seriousness of the injuries suffered by crime victims.
According to prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Christina Lucas and her brother Christopher, who were 20 when the incident took place in October 2013, showed no remorse after a D.C. Superior Court jury convicted them on May 8 of aggravated assault while armed and designated the incident as an anti-gay hate crime.
During the trial, witnesses testified that the two defendants led a group of others in an attack on the victim on a Northwest Washington street, with the Lucas siblings and the others punching and stomping the victim multiple times after knocking him to the ground.
According to trial testimony, Christina Lucas slashed the victim’s face with a sharp object while he was lying on the ground, causing him to suffer a permanent facial scar just below his eye after she called him a “faggot motherfucker.”
The lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Jennings, submitted a pre-sentencing memorandum to the court calling for a sentence in the upper range of voluntary sentencing guidelines established by the court for a bias-related aggravated assault while armed. The guidelines call for a sentence of between four and 15 years of incarceration.
Instead, Williams initially sentenced the Lucas siblings to four years in jail and suspended all but one year. She also sentenced them to five years of supervised probation upon their release. At the Aug. 15 hearing, Williams startled prosecutors by announcing she changed her mind and lowered the sentence for Christina Lucas to a six-month jail term.
A deputy U.S. Attorney attending the Aug. 15 hearing suggested Williams may have acted improperly by changing the sentence after the official sentencing hearing had ended. He pointed out that the reduced sentence was not included in the hearing transcript and prosecutors were not present when the change was made, preventing them from objecting to the change.
Williams said she would call another hearing to give prosecutors and the defense a chance to file a motion or brief to weigh in on the sentencing change. But she gave no indication she would change the sentence back to its original one-year jail term.
“The conduct done here by the defendants is reprehensible, right? They’re part of a group of people that jumped another individual,” Williams said at the Aug. 15 hearing.
“However, in the aggravated assaults while armed that I have seen over my life, when I look at the severity of the injuries, you know, people are left in wheelchairs,” she said. “People are disfigured. People have broken bones…People are left with sort of lifelong disfigurements.”
By contrast, she said in the case of the Lucas siblings, the victim’s injuries weren’t as severe.
“There were no long-term injuries,” she said. “There were no broken bones…he’s obviously not in a wheelchair.”
She added, “He, like all victims of crime, sort of, is dealing with the mental frustration of having been jumped…All victims of crime, violent crime, you know, have to deal with that.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kapil Longani told Williams that recent medical reports from the victim’s doctors show he may be suffering from a long-term brain injury as a result of repeated blows to the head during the attack. But Williams said she could only base her sentencing decision on verified facts presented at the trial.
In comments that are likely to draw concern by LGBT activists, Williams said she also did not believe the hate crime aspect of the case reached a level of seriousness that called for an enhanced prison sentence that the D.C. hate crimes law gives judges the option of utilizing.
“Now I don’t want anybody to think that I’m somehow dismissing the findings that there was a hate crime, but I’ll tell you and I’ll be fully honest,” she said. “You know, there’s hate crime, from my perspective, and there’s hate crime. So when I think of hate crime, I include hate crime with the idea of domestic terrorism, right? That’s what I think it is.”
Williams said she considers a true hate crime to be a random targeting of a person because he or she is a member of a certain race, sexual orientation, gender or some other characteristic. She cited the recent murder of nine black people in a church in South Carolina by a white supremacist as an example of a serious hate crime.
“The most famous homosexual killing is the one – was it in Utah?” Williams asked. “Matthew – there’s a law named after him. I forgot his name. Matthew – I can’t think of it. But the man, the man was beaten to near death only because he was gay,” Williams said as the Lucas twins stood in silence next to their attorneys. “Those people didn’t know him.”
She appeared to be referring to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was tied to a fence post in Laramie, Wyo., and severely beaten and died a short time later. The attacker and a co-defendant who assisted in the attack were sentenced to life in prison for murder convictions.
Because Wyoming did not have a hate crimes law and there was no federal hate crimes law that covered gay people at the time, the Shepard case was not legally classified as a hate crime, even though it has become recognized as one of the nation’s most egregious anti-gay hate crimes.
Williams said that while in law school 20 years ago in Boston, when she was a teaching assistant, one of her students – a 22-year-old lesbian – was attacked and beaten by a group of men who became enraged when they saw her walking down the street holding hands with her girlfriend.
“At the time I’m only 24, so I’m not that old, but that kind of stuff sticks with you,” she said. “So I know, you know, how serious hate crimes can be and how dangerous it is.”
But in the cases of the Lucas twins, Williams said, she did not believe the attack against the gay male victim was totally random because trial testimony revealed that the victim’s mother knew the Lucases. Williams noted that the victim’s mother’s brother is the uncle of the Lucas twins.
According to Williams, the mother played a key role in identifying the Lucases to the police during the investigation, which led to their arrests. She said some type of dispute had been going on between the two parties.
“But part of it had to do with the use of the language and the hate crime,” Williams said in referring to the alleged anti-gay language used by one or both of the Lucas twins during the assault.
“Again, reprehensible behavior,” she said. “And so, but I just need to make clear that there are different levels of hate crime…For example, if two black people get into a fight and one of them uses the N word against another one I don’t think of that as…a hate crime.”
The reason she raised the issue of the N word, Williams said, is that Christina Lucas is gay. She said she isn’t certain whether certain anti-gay slurs that would be unacceptable for straight people to use are somewhat acceptable for gays to use among themselves.
“Obviously, in this context, nothing feels more comfortable because it’s a violent attack,” said Williams. “But I’m just saying, linguistically, I don’t know where we are linguistically on this issue,” she said.
“And so, we’re here at the hate crime point. And so I will admit that it’s hard for me to grasp how one gay person commits a hate crime against another.”
She added, however, that regardless of whether she understands it, the jury handed down a hate crime conviction in the Lucas case. Yet she also factored in her perception that the Lucas siblings are not likely to target gay people in the future.
“So do I have concerns with Ms. Lucas going forward, that she’s going to be terrorizing the community and going after gay people? No. I don’t have that concern.”
Likewise, concerning Christopher Lucas, Williams said she also doesn’t believe he will likely target gay people going forward because of his close relationship with his sister.
“I don’t have a concern that Mr. Lucas is just going to be chasing after gay people because then he’d be chasing after his own sister,” Williams said.
Two prominent local attorneys had opposing opinions on whether Judge Williams acted properly in the way she lowered her sentence for Christina Lucas and her decision not to “enhance” the sentence under the provision of the D.C. hate crimes law. Both spoke to the Blade on condition that they not be identified because they could have future dealings with the judge.
One of them believes Williams’ sentencing change violates judicial rules banning ex-parte actions by judges and could possibly lead to disciplinary action against her by the an arm of the D.C. Bar that investigates allegations of misconduct by judges. The same attorney said Williams acted improperly but within her authority as a judge to decline to enhance the sentences under the hate crimes law.
“This is a blatant display of judge nullification of a jury verdict,” the attorney said. “She is basically saying she doesn’t agree this is a hate crime. She nullified the hate crime conviction.”
The other attorney took strong exception to that assessment.
“I see no hint that the judge doesn’t agree with the D.C. hate crime law,” the attorney said. “She’s just fitting the sentence to all the relevant facts about the crime and the victim and the defendants, which is what we want judges to do,” said the attorney.
“Different people, different judges, will see things differently in different cases,” the attorney said. “That doesn’t make one right and one wrong. I don’t see any basis for accusing the judge of misconduct on that score.”
Concerning changing the sentence at an inappropriate time, the attorney said the judge has denied doing that. “And I certainly don’t know the facts,” said the attorney. “She has invited the parties to brief the matter, and I assume they’ll do so. If she waited too long to change the sentence, or failed to give proper notice, she can correct her error, or the court of appeals can.”