A D.C. Superior Court jury on Wednesday issued a verdict of not guilty for a 60-year-old District man charged with the February 2012 stabbing death of transgender woman Deoni JaParker Jones, 23, at a bus stop in Northeast Washington near her home.
The verdict followed a two-week long trial in which a team of three attorneys from the city’s Public Defender Service argued that Gary Montgomery, who was 55 at the time of the murder, was not the person who plunged a knife into the head of Jones on the night of Feb. 2, 2012.
Although police and prosecutors provided video footage from several nearby security cameras showing a male figure striking Jones in the head inside a bus shelter at East Capitol Street and Sycamore Road, N.E., the defense argued that the video images were too fuzzy to show anyone’s face.
The announcement of the verdict by a woman who had been named as the jury’s spokesperson prompted Judean Jones, Deoni Jones’ mother, to burst out crying. Her crying intensified as Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who presided over the trial, turned to Montgomery and said, “Mr. Montgomery, you will be released in this case.”
Montgomery has been held most of the time since his arrest less than two weeks after the murder at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a city-run psychiatric facility. One reason it took five and a half years to bring him to trial, court observers have said, is because several psychiatric examinations of Montgomery provided conflicting conclusions on whether he was mentally competent to stand trial.
He was finally cleared for trial last November when Leibovitz handed down an order finding him competent to stand trial based on the findings of the latest psychiatric examinations.
As she walked out of the courtroom while being consoled by another daughter and other family members, Judean Jones screamed out in a showing of emotional pain, causing at least one juror who was walking nearby in the courthouse corridor to begin crying.
“We were as thorough as possible in reviewing all the evidence,” said another juror, who spoke on condition of not being identified by name. “I did not think they had the evidence to show that he was guilty,” the juror said.
Another juror who also spoke on condition of anonymity said the jury found that prosecutors provided sufficient evidence to show that Montgomery was at the bus stop shortly before the murder. But the juror said the defense’s position that there was at least a four-minute gap in the video footage between the time Montgomery was present and the time a figure could be seen striking Jones in the head raised sufficient doubt, preventing them from concluding that it was Montgomery who struck Jones.
One witness presented by prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office testified that she was at the bus stop a few minutes before the murder and identified Montgomery as being there sitting next to Jones and staring at Jones with “wide eyes.” But the witness said she walked away from the bus stop and decided to go to a Metro subway station several blocks away before anything else happened.
David Knight, the lead defense attorney in the case, pointed out in closing arguments on Monday that police and prosecutors could provide no fingerprints or DNA on the knife or on a discarded coat near the crime scene that police believe belonged to the person who stabbed Jones.
Raising his voice to emphasize his point, Knight told the jury in an angry tone that police homicide investigators discovered traces of DNA on the clothing items found near the crime scene but chose not to enter the DNA sample into a national law enforcement database to try to find a match with another person after laboratory tests found that the DNA did not match samples taken from Montgomery.
He also pointed to witnesses who knew Montgomery and who testified that Montgomery walked with a distinct limp. Investigators found at least one witness who identified Montgomery as the person captured on video walking to the bus stop with a limp in his stride shortly before the murder.
Knight then pointed to another video clip showing a witness who testified that he chased a man who he thought had punched Jones at the bus stop and knocked the man down with the intent to hold him until police arrived on the scene. The video shows the man police and prosecutors say was Montgomery running fast without a limp.
It could not possibly have been Montgomery, Knight told the jury, saying that other witnesses testified that Montgomery could never have run as fast and steady as the person shown on the video.
The man who testified that he chased the suspect, Jermaine Jackson, 41, told the jury he appeared to have knocked the suspect unconscious. But he said he quickly returned to the bus stop after his girlfriend, who was in a vehicle with him next to the bus stop when the incident happened, began to scream. When he got back to the bus stop he discovered why his girlfriend was so upset – Jones was lying on the ground unconscious with a knife sticking in the side of her head bleeding.
Under cross examination from the defense Jackson said that although he could describe the man he chased by his approximate height, weight and skin complexion he could not recognize Montgomery sitting in the courtroom as that person more than five years after the incident occurred.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, one of two prosecutors working on the case, told the jury in her closing argument that the video footage of a man walking to and entering the bus stop shortly before the murder was clear enough to enable a witness who knows Montgomery to positively identify him as the person in the video.
Kerkhoff pointed out that video from other nearby cameras showed that Jones got up and walked out of the bus shelter and the man identified as Montgomery got up and followed her before she returned to the bus stop as did the man who followed her.
This combined with the testimony of the witness who was sitting at the bus stop next to Jones and Montgomery provided sufficient evidence to conclude that the person in the video observed striking Jones, even though that video was not sharp enough to show Montgomery’s face, was Montgomery.
“The evidence in this case is it was the defendant who was at the bus stop,” Kerkhoff said. Kerkhoff added that the video doesn’t show Montgomery leaving the bus stop as his defense attorneys claimed.
“You have it from the video that the defendant never left the bus stop and no one else came into the bus stop to do this,” she said. “That’s the man that killed her,” Kerkhoff told the jury, pointing to Montgomery sitting at the defense table. “The defendant killed her. It has taken five and a half years. Find him guilty.”
Defense attorney Knight reiterated what he called the inconsistencies in the government’s case. He noted that Montgomery was found to be wearing a brown coat and witness Jackson who chased a suspect testified the suspect was wearing a black coat.
Knight pointed out that Jackson testified that he punched and “stomped” the suspect he thought had attacked Jones at the bus stop. But when police brought Montgomery into a police station for questioning a few days after the murder he had no visible injures on his face or body, Knight pointed out to the jury.
“The burden always remains with the government,” Knight said. “They must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. After you consider all of the evidence and the lack of evidence you can still have a reasonable doubt,” he said.
In referring to police and prosecutors, Knight added, “They failed Mr. Montgomery and they failed JaParker Jones. JaParker Jones deserves real justice because Mr. Montgomery is not the one who did it…You should go in the back and check the form that says ‘not guilty’ and end this.”
Prior to the trial prosecutors said they had insufficient evidence to classify the murder as a hate crime or that Montgomery targeted Jones because of her status as a transgender woman. But in her closing arguments prosecutor Kerkhoff suggested Montgomery stabbed Jones after becoming enraged that Jones appeared to be ignoring his expressions of interest in her as the two sat at the bus stop.
Alvin Bethea, Jones’ stepfather who, along with his wife Judean Jones, have become outspoken supporters of the LGBT community since the time of their daughter’s murder, said the verdict was devastating to them and their family.
“I think even though there was no smoking gun, with the overwhelming circumstantial evidence there is no question that they should have found him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder,” he told the Washington Blade after the verdict.
“How the jury can come to the verdict that they reached is really beyond me,” he said. “I think that the prosecutors and the system, the court system, took way too long to bring this case to trial. Five and a half years was really an injustice to me, Deoni’s mother, sisters, and family and to the LGBT community in general.”
Added Bethea: “There is another person who administers justice in this society – the good Lord administers justice. And you know we will seek out justice from him. We will seek out justice from him.’
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office respects the jury’s verdict and once again extends its condolences to the family of JaParker Deoni Jones for the loss of their loved one,” spokesperson William Miller said in a statement.
Defense attorney Knight said the defense team would have no immediate comment on the verdict.
Longtime D.C. transgender advocates Ruby Corado and Earline Budd expressed shock and disappointment when told of the not guilty verdict. The two noted that the Deoni Jones murder had prompted many in the LGBT community to become more vigilant in efforts to protect the rights and safety of transgender people in the D.C. community.
Many of the city’s elected officials, including former Mayor Vincent Gray, attended vigils and rallies commemorating Deoni Jones’ life. At Gray’s suggestion, the D.C. Council used Jones’ name for a newly passed law streamlining the process of allowing transgender people to change their birth certificates to reflect their correct gender.