A Montgomery County Circuit Court Jury on Tuesday found a 22-year-old Germantown, Md., man guilty of first-degree murder for the October 2015 shooting death of a transgender woman in an alley behind a shopping mall in Gaithersburg.
Police and prosecutors charged Rico LeBlond with shooting Zella Ziona, 21, several times at close range in an alley next to the Montgomery Village Crossing shopping mall.
Ziona’s mother, Tyshika Smith, who witnessed the fatal shooting, was among about 20 prosecution witnesses that testified at the five-day trial that preceded the verdict.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who described the shooting as an “execution,” said the motive appeared to be a personal dispute between LeBlond and Ziona, who he said had been friends since the two were in elementary school.
According to McCarthy, police and prosecutors could find no evidence to show the killing was a hate crime based on Ziona’s status as a transgender woman.
“Clearly the police looked at the issue of whether or not it was a hate crime,” he said. “We certainly did. And I will tell you if we thought we could have proceeded with a hate crime we would have,” McCarthy told the Washington Blade. “But again, the clearest motivation seems to be some kind of a fight that occurred the day before.”
McCarthy pointed out that a widely publicized theory released by police at the time of LeBlond’s arrest one day after the shooting that he killed Ziona because she embarrassed him in front of several friends by approaching him in a flamboyant way also could not be substantiated.
“It was an anonymous police tip that was never substantiated,” McCarthy told the Blade. “There were no live witnesses. There was no person that ever said this is what happened. There was no evidence of that,” he said. “We couldn’t find anybody nor did anybody come forward to say that actually happened.”
He said what police and prosecutors were able to substantiate through multiple witnesses is LeBlond and Ziona got into a fight that involved physical violence the day before the shooting and that fight appears to have prompted LeBlond to fatally shoot Ziona the next day, on Oct. 15, 2015. He said investigators could not determine the exact cause of the fight, which took place at a bus transfer station near the shopping mall where LeBlond shot Ziona one day later.
Although investigators weren’t sure why the fight started, McCarthy said they were certain it was not due to Ziona’s status as a trans woman. Ziona’s mother testified at the trial that Ziona began transitioning about a year before the shooting.
“Because they knew each other forever and grew up with each other, this was not a secret to anybody,” McCarthy said in discussing Ziona’s transition. He said investigators learned that LeBlond remained friends with Ziona during her transition.
“So something happened the day before and they had a fight, a physical fight that the police were called to break up,” said McCarthy.
Witnesses at the trial testified that a group of three to five males appeared to have been fighting with Ziona on the night of the shooting close to where Ziona was shot.
“This event may have served as a precursor to lure [Ziona] into the alleyway to fight and where she was ultimately murdered,” a police statement of probable cause says.
At a news conference after the verdict was announced McCarthy told reporters LeBlond was one of several people “lying in wait” for Ziona in the alley.
The probable cause statement says that witnesses told police that after initially shooting Ziona, LeBlond “walked over to her, stood over her, and fired more rounds into her body.” It says Ziona suffered gunshot wounds to her head and groin area.
LeBlond’s attorney, David Felsen, argued that LeBlond was not the person who shot Ziona. He said several witnesses gave conflicting accounts of what happened at the scene of the shooting, indicating there was “reasonable doubt” over whether his client committed the murder.
The jury’s decision to convict LeBlond on Tuesday came six months after a separate trial for him on the same case ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Prosecutors immediately pushed for a second trial, which resulted in the conviction this week.
Circuit Court Judge Terrance McGann, who presided over the second trial, scheduled a sentencing for LeBlond on Oct. 19. McCarthy said his office will ask for the maximum sentence of life in prison.
The verdict in the LeBlond case became the second guilty verdict in an LGBT-related murder case handed down in the same day. Earlier in the day on Tuesday a D.C. Superior Court jury found District resident Jeffrey Neal guilty of two counts of first-degree murder while armed for allegedly bludgeoning to death two male roommates with whom he had sexual relations and whose bodies were found at his house in June 2016.