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Del. gay man who alleged police abuse found guilty

Anti-gay bias allegation not mentioned in trial

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excessive force, Robaire G. Lizama, anti-gay attack, Lewes, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade

Robaire G. Lizama was found guilty of several misdemeanor charges.
(Photo courtesy Lizama)

GEORGETOWN, Del. — A 66-year-old gay man who filed a complaint against a police officer in Lewes, Del., for allegedly using excessive force to arrest him in January during an altercation at a hospital emergency room was found guilty by a Delaware judge on Tuesday on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, menacing, and resisting arrest.

 Judge Rosemary Beauregard of the Sussex County Court of Common Pleas announced at the conclusion of a non-jury trial in Georgetown, Del., that a state prosecutor proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Robaire G. Lizama engaged in “hysterical and abusive” behavior at the hospital that justified his arrest and confirmed he committed the three offenses.

In a development that court observers said was routine for a misdemeanor case like this one, Beauregard handed down an immediate sentence for Lizama that included a 30-day suspended jail term, six months of court-monitored probation, and a $600 fine plus $57 in court reimbursement costs.

In another development likely to surprise LGBT activists familiar with the case, Lizama’s public defender attorney Heather Lingo made no mention during the trial of Lizama’s written complaint to the Lewes Police Department in February alleging that the arresting officer singled him out because he’s gay.

 When approached by the Blade after the trial Lingo declined to comment, saying she would have nothing more to say about the case.

 “I don’t think he would grab a straight man, bear hug him and then body slam him to the ground and try to tell him he’s being arrested,” Lizama told the Washington Blade at the time he filed his complaint with Lewes Police Chief Thomas Sell in February.

 Lizama, a former D.C. resident who lives in Lewes, has accused Officer Tyrone Woodyard of fabricating the charges against him after throwing him to the floor, causing a head injury during a Jan. 25 incident at Beebe Healthcare, a hospital in Lewes.

 The arrest report prepared by Woodyard says Lizama had been acting in a disorderly manner after he accompanied a female friend to the emergency room who had been experiencing chest pain. Lizama testified at the trial that he was concerned that nurses who admitted and began to treat his friend weren’t being compassionate in their handling of the situation.

 He denied he acted in a threatening or menacing way or that he refused to leave the emergency room when asked to do so by one of the nurses.

 Jaqueline Marshall, the emergency room nurse who participated in the treatment of Lizama’s friend, and hospital security officer Julian Peacock testified that Lizama – while understandably upset that his friend may have been suffering from a heart attack – behaved in such an aggressive and hysterical way that the nursing staff became alarmed and felt threatened.

Marshall, Peacock and Officer Woodyard each testified that Lizama “lunged” at Woodyard while Woodyard and Peacock were escorting Lizama out of the emergency room area to the hospital’s lobby, where they told him he would have to wait while his friend was treated.

 Woodyard told the court he couldn’t immediately determine whether Lizama was armed when Lizama suddenly turned toward him in an aggressive way. He said he decided to “taken him down” on the floor out of concern that Lizama could have harmed the nurses and others walking through the emergency room area.

 Woodyard and Peacock testified that when Woodyard tried to handcuff Lizama after telling him he was under arrest, Lizama resisted the officer’s attempts to place cuffs on one of his hands and struggled with the officer and Peacock on the floor. This prompted another nurse to enter the fray and assist in restraining Lizama, the two testified.

 Lizama testified that he turned toward Woodyard because he was trying to find his way to the entrance to the hospital lobby and in no way was attempting to attack or harm Woodyard. He said he didn’t resist the officer’s attempt to handcuff him but was moving about because he was in pain and was trying to place his hand over his forehead above his eye, which was bleeding after his head struck the floor when Woodyard knocked him down.

 In response to questioning by Lingo, Marshall and Peacock acknowledged that Lizama was admitted to the emergency department for treatment after his arrest. Lingo presented a photo of Lizama as evidence that showed a gash over his eye and pointed to Lizama’s testimony that the injury required a plastic bandage to stop the bleeding,

 Assistant State Attorney General Paul Seward, the lead prosecutor in the case, presented as evidence a video recording taken from the hospital’s security cameras that shows Lizama and his friend enter the hospital’s emergency department. The video footage shows Lizama moving about and raising his arms in what appeared to be an agitated state as he talked to one of the nurses at the admissions desk.

 Beauregard said she based her verdict on what she called “credible and consistent” testimony by Marshall, Peacock and Woodward. She said the three witnesses along with the video recording at the trial convinced her that Lizama’s behavior was, in fact, posing a potential danger to the hospital staff and other visitors and proved he committed the misdemeanor offenses of disorderly conduct, menacing and resisting arrest.

 The judge called Lizama’s testimony at the trial “inconsistent” and “contradictory.”

 “All three of those witnesses thought something bad was going to happen,” she said. “He put the public at risk and he put his friend at risk,” said Beauregard, saying the disturbance Lizama was creating could have interfered with the nurses’ and doctors’ effort to diagnose and treat the friend.

 It was later determined that the friend did not have a heart attack.

 Lizama told the Blade after the trial that he had told Lingo, his attorney, about his belief that Officer Woodyard targeted him because he’s gay. He said he doesn’t know why Lingo didn’t raise that concern during the trial.

 He has acknowledged that he doesn’t recall Woodyard making anti-gay remarks or making a reference to his sexual orientation at the time of the arrest but said he nevertheless got the impression that the officer assumed he’s gay.

 When approached after the trial and asked by the Blade about Lizama’s allegation of anti-gay bias, Officer Woodyard refused to comment, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

 “I’m totally shocked,” Lizama said of the judge’s guilty verdict in an interview after the trial.

 He said Lingo suggested he accept a plea bargain offer that Seward made minutes before the start of the trial. Still reeling over the verdict, Lizama said he didn’t remember what the terms of the plea offer consisted of.

 “I told my attorney if I don’t think I’m guilty why would I plead guilty?” said Lizama. “I wholeheartedly didn’t think I was guilty so I said no. I wanted to go with the trial.”

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2023 Best of LGBTQ DC Readers’ Choice Award Finalist Voting

Vote for your favorite finalists through October 2nd!

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It is time to celebrate the best of LGBTQ+ DC! You nominated and now we have our finalists. Vote for your favorites in our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC categories through October 2nd. Our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC will be announced at the Best of LGBTQ DC Awards Party on October 19th and our special issue will come out on Friday, October 20th.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker celebrates opening of new Max Robinson Center

Mayor, city officials call facility major benefit for Southeast D.C.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, joined by city officials and leaders of Whitman-Walker Health, cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center at the city’s St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C.

The six-story healthcare and research facility will enable Whitman-Walker to expand its wide range of services to the community, with a focus on Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents, officials said. Those services, which began when the facility opened its doors on Aug. 14, include primary, dental, and HIV care, behavioral health services, substance use counseling, and a pharmacy, according to a Whitman-Walker statement.

“Today, we’re opening a bigger Max Robinson Center, and in two years we’ll be opening a new hospital on this same campus – and together, these two facilities are going to change the way we deliver healthcare in D.C.,” Bowser told the crowd of about 200 that turned out for the event held in a courtyard next to the newly opened building.

“We’re incredibly grateful that Whitman-Walker is part of the legacy that we’re building on the St. Elizabeths East campus,” the mayor said. “This campus represents our commitment to Ward 8 and our community to a stronger, healthier, and equitable D.C.”

Whitman-Walker and city officials noted that the new building replaces the longtime LGBTQ supportive health care organization’s original Max Robinson Center that opened in 1993 on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia about a mile away from the new facility. The center was named in honor of award-winning TV news journalist Max Robinson who became the first African American to serve as co-anchor of a network news program at ABC News in 1978. Robinson died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS in 1988.

Bowser and others who spoke at the event praised Whitman-Walker for providing high quality healthcare through its Max Robinson center for underserved communities in city neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The opening of the new Max Robinson Center comes on Whitman-Walker’s 50th year since its founding in 1973 as an LGBTQ community health clinic in a church basement in Georgetown, Whitman-Walker CEO Naseema Shafi noted at the ribbon cutting event.

“We are thrilled to unveil this once-in-a-lifetime healthcare and research expansion during our 50th anniversary year,” Shafi said. “Our new healthcare home will significantly improve access to excellent healthcare for all residents,” she said.

Among other things, the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to serve an additional 10,000 patients per year more than it was able to serve at the original Max Robinson Center, a statement released by Whitman-Walker says. An important part of its services will include mental health and behavioral services, officials said.

There are more than 40 exam rooms, eight dental suites, six group therapy rooms and a psychotherapy suite in the new facility, the officials said in the statement.

The statement says the new building will also serve as headquarters for the Whitman-Walker Institute, an arm of the healthcare organization that for many years has conducted HIV related research. It says the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to expand its research “from 19 to over 60 clinical trials, including innovations in cancer research and continued progress toward finding a cure for HIV.”

Others who attended or spoke at the event included D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7); Japer Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeths East Development; and Debrah Wells, a Whitman-Walker patient who said the substance use treatment and counseling she received at the Max Robinson Center “saved my life.”

Also speaking were Louis Dubin, managing partner of Redbrick development company, which led the development of the building project; and Jim Davis, president of Davis Construction, the company that built the new facility. Both pointed out that they worked with banks and other lenders along with financial support from the city that made the financing of the new Max Robinson Center possible.

Whitman-Walker CEO Shafi told the Washington Blade after the ribbon cutting event that while Whitman-Walker has expanded its services to include the wider community in the years since its founding as an LGBTQ clinic, its commitment to serving the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community continues in all its facilities, including the new Max Robinson Center.

“What’s interesting about Whitman-Walker of today — when we started in 1973, we were started by community for community, and we were responding to the needs at that time particularly of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So, now we’ve continued to take care of people, we will continue to do so,” she added.

“And this new site in Congress Heights gives us the opportunity to take care of even more community members, parts of the LGBTQ community and the greater Washington region,” she said, noting that Whitman-Walker currently has about 2,500 transgender or gender expansive people in care, and 3,500 people with HIV in care.

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District of Columbia

Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years

Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.  

The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.

Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.

Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.

Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.

Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.

The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.

Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.  

Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.

At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.

Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.

He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.

The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.

The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.

The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.

“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.

Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.

Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.

Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.  

Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W.  where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.

“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.

Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.

Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.

“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”

Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.

“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.

After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.

She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.  

“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.

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