A D.C. Superior Court judge on Tuesday dismissed the hate crime designation for first degree murder and four other charges against two men currently on trial for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds.
In a development expected to raise concern among LGBT activists, Judge Milton C. Lee granted a motion introduced by one of the prosecutors in the case calling for dismissal of the hate crime “enhancement” designations against defendant Monte Johnson, 23.
Lee dismissed the same hate crime enhancement designations against defendant Jolonta Little, 28, at the request of his attorney, both on grounds that there was insufficient evidence by prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to support a hate crime designation.
Under the D.C. criminal code, a “hate crime” is not a crime in and of itself for which a specific charge can be brought against someone. The city’s hate crimes statue calls for designating an underlying offense or charge such as murder, assault, or robbery with a hate crime enhancement, which can result in a more severe sentence if the individual charged is convicted.
In the case of the Dodds murder, prosecutors designated as hate crime enhancements for defendants Little and Johnson the charges of felony murder while armed, two counts of robbery while armed, conspiracy, and assault with a dangerous weapon.
Prosecutors charged Little and Johnson with 11 other offenses related to the Dodds murder that were not designated as hate crimes, including possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and assault with intent to commit robbery while armed.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to say why one of the prosecutors asked Judge Lee to dismiss the hate crime designation for Johnson, saying his office has a policy of not commenting on specific details for trials in progress.
In past cases that haven’t reached the stage of a trial, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has said it sometimes drops hate crime designations made by D.C. police when the evidence doesn’t support such a designation.
D.C. attorney Dale Edwin Sanders, who practices criminal law in D.C. and Virginia, has said prosecutors sometimes prefer not to bring hate crime designations before juries out of fear that jurors may become confused over such a designation and might possibly find a defendant not guilty for the underlying charge such as assault or murder.
“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.”
LGBT activists have complained in the recent past that the U.S. Attorney’s office appeared to be unnecessarily reluctant to designate assaults against LGBT people as hate crimes, even though victims reported being called anti-LGBT names at the time they were attacked.
Lee’s ruling tossing out the hate crime designations for Little and Johnson came two days before defense attorneys Kevin Irving, who represents Johnson, and Brandi Harden, who represents Little, gave emotional closing arguments attacking the credibility of the prosecutors’ two lead witnesses, Shareem Hall, 25, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 23.
Both Halls were initially charged with first degree murder while armed in connection with the Dodds murder along with Little and Johnson. At the start of the trial for Little and Johnson earlier this month prosecutors informed the jury that the Hall brothers pleaded guilty to a charge of second degree murder and agreed to testify at the trial as cooperating government witnesses.
Cyheme Hall testified that in the early morning hours of July 4, 2016, he and the other three men made plans to commit robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, most of whom were sex workers, congregated. He said the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for possible victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.
They found their first victim on Eastern Avenue, a man they agreed who was dressed as a woman and who police later said was a trans woman hanging out in an area known for where female trans sex workers congregate. Three of the men jumped out of the car with guns drawn, shoved the woman to the ground and stole $80 from her, Hall testified.
He said a few blocks away on Division Avenue, N.E., they saw another trans woman they thought would also be an easy target. Hall said he and Johnson ran out of the car with their guns drawn and attacked the woman. But she surprised them by fighting back. The woman, later identified as Dee Dee Dodds grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s gun after he pointed it at her face, Hall testified.
According to Hall, Johnson pulled back and fired his gun, striking Dodds in the neck. After she fell to the sidewalk bleeding, the two men grabbed her purse and cell phone and ran away before being picked up by Little and Shareem Hall, who had remained in Little’s car, a white Pontiac, prosecutors said.
In dramatic testimony, Hall told the jury the men opened the purse and it was empty.
“The plan was just to rob a person,” the Washington Post quoted him as telling the jury. “I was in shock. He shot a person for nothing,” the Post quoted Hall as saying in referring to Johnson who he identified as the one who fatally shot Dodds.
A little over two weeks later, in their closing arguments on Thursday defense attorneys Irving and Harden told the jury the Hall brothers should be considered untrustworthy, unreliable, and habitual liars interested only in getting off with a more lenient sentence.
Irving said his client absolutely did not shoot Dodds. He pointed out that police had no proof that a gun found in the police wagon used to take Johnson from the place where he was arrested in February 2017 to the homicide office to be questioned was Johnson’s gun. He disputed claims by police that Johnson had the gun at the time of his arrest and discarded it in the police wagon, where he was alone on route to the homicide office.
Irving noted no fingerprints or DNA sample were found on the gun that could link it to Johnson. He and Harden, Little’s attorney, said the prosecutors’ case against their clients relied on the weight of the Hall brothers’ testimony, which the two lawyers said was based on lies and should be completely discounted.
Meanwhile, despite the judge’s ruling dismissing the hate crime designations for the first degree murder charge and the other offenses Johnson and Little were charged with, Assistant U.A. Attorney Thomas Saunders, one of two lead prosecutors in the case, told the jury in the government’s closing arguments on Thursday morning that Little and Johnson along with the Hall brothers engaged in a conspiracy to target transgender female sex workers for robbery on the night of Dodds’ murder.
Without mentioning the words hate crimes, Saunders stated repeatedly to the jury that the four men, with Johnson playing a lead role, targeted at least seven trans women for armed robberies, including Dodds, in the early morning hours of July 4, 2016, in three separate locations in D.C.
Saunders reminded the jury of the prosecutors’ disclosure earlier in the trial that the Hall brothers pleaded guilty to a charge of second degree murder as part of a plea agreement with the government after admitting their involvement in the Dodds’ murder. In his closing arguments on Thursday Saunders said second degree murder was a serious offense and the Hall brothers have admitted their involvement in the murder.
He said they should be considered credible witnesses, among other things, because their accounts of what happened at the scene of the shooting of Dodds is consistent with two eye witnesses at the scene, one of whom called police after witnessing the shooting. Although the eye witnesses couldn’t see the shooter’s face in a clear enough way to identify him directly, they provided police with details of what they saw that corroborated Cyheme Hall’s account that Johnson was the shooter, Saunders told the jury.
The defense was scheduled to complete its closing arguments beginning at 9:30 on Monday morning, Feb. 25 after which prosecutors under the rules of criminal trials were scheduled to deliver their rebuttal to the defense’s arguments. The case will then go to the jury for its deliberations, with a verdict possible sometime later in the week.