A D.C. Superior Court jury began deliberations on Tuesday in the month-long trial of two men charged with the July 4, 2016 shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds on a Northeast D.C. street near her home.
The deliberations began one week after Judge Milton C. Lee issued a controversial decision to dismiss the hate crime designation for first-degree murder and four other charges against defendants Jolonta Little, 28, and Monte Johnson, 23, who prosecutors say targeted Dodds because of her status as a transgender woman.
In a development that has raised concern among LGBT activists, Lee’s decision to dismiss the hate crime “enhancement” designations came in response to a request by both prosecutors and the defense attorneys.
But despite the removal of the hate crime designation, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Saunders and Ahmed Baset, the lead prosecutors in the case, argued that defendants Johnson and Little along with two other men conspired to target female transgender sex workers for armed street robberies in the early morning hours of July 4, 2016. They said Dodds was among those they targeted.
Without mentioning the words “hate crime” Saunders in his closing arguments said the defendants believed trans women would be “easy targets” for robberies and chose to go to sections of the city known for where trans sex workers congregate to carry out robberies.
Shortly before jurors were called back to the courtroom to hear the completion of the lawyers’ closing arguments on Tuesday, Lee issued another controversial decision – this time to allow the trial to continue following a dramatic disclosure by prosecutors one day earlier. In an email to the defense and the judge, the head of the U.S. Attorney’s division handling murder cases disclosed that prosecutor Saunders spoke to a colleague at the U.S. Attorney’s Office about the prosecution of a case involving the son of one of the jurors.
Defense attorneys called Saunders’ action a possible act of jury tampering because he reportedly asked the prosecutor working on the case of the juror’s son about the possibility of probation rather than a prison sentence and possibly mentioning this to the juror. The defense attorneys argued that the juror, a woman, could have perceived the action as favorable to her son and prompted her to push for a verdict of guilty in the Dodds case in support of the prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman, Saunders’ boss and the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Homicide Section, argued that there was no evidence that the development would impact the juror or the jury as a whole because there was no evidence that any juror knew about it. He said Saunders’ action did not constitute jury tampering.
Lee declined to act on the defense attorney’s request that the entire case be dismissed over Saunders’ actions. But he said he would consider holding a post-trial fact-finding hearing to determine whether Saunders acted improperly.
Following the discussion over the jury matter and Lee’s ruling, which occurred while the jury was outside the courtroom, the lawyers resumed the closing arguments they began on Monday.
Among the hot topics of the closing arguments on both sides was the role of the other two men involved in the robberies of trans women who were implicated in the Dodds murder. The two are Shareem Hall, 25, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 23. Both men pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder in connection with Dodds’ murder and agreed to become government witnesses at the trial.
Cyheme Hall testified that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck after she fought back when he and Johnson attacked her with guns drawn and demanded her money as she was walking home on Division Avenue, N.E.
He told the jury that after Dodds fell to the sidewalk bleeding, the two 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. Cyheme Hall testified that the group discovered the purse was empty.
“The plan was to just rob a person,” the Washington Post quoted Cyheme Hall 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.
Defense attorney Brandi Harden, who represents Little, and Kevin Irving, who represents Johnson, told the jury the Hall brothers should be considered untrustworthy, unreliable, and habitual liars interested only in getting off with a more lenient sentence. The defense attorneys accused the Halls of falsely blaming their clients for the Dodds murder to gain the favor of prosecutors, who have the power to recommend a lenient sentence for them.
Prosecutors Saunders and Baset disputed those claims in their opening and closing arguments, saying the Hall brothers admitted they committed second-degree murder knowing they face a considerable sentence sometime later this year. All four men charged in the case have been held without bond since the time of their arrests.
Saunders reminded the jury in his rebuttal argument on Tuesday that prosecutors presented corroborating evidence, including corroborating witnesses linking Johnson and Little to the Dodds murder and a string of armed robberies of at least seven trans women, including Dodds on the night of the murder.
Among the key corroborating evidence, Saunders noted, was a GPS ankle bracelet that Little wore on the night of the murder as part of a conviction and probation he received in an unrelated criminal case. The tracking of Little’s whereabouts that night by GPS experts placed him at the scene of each of the three robberies the men were charged with committing, including the scene where Dodds was shot, at the exact time those incidents occurred.
Prosecutors and police also tracked the cell phone conversations between Little and Johnson and the Halls that they say placed them at the scene of the robberies and shooting.
In addition, Saunders pointed to recorded phone conversations that the government obtained of Johnson talking with his girlfriend while in prison in which prosecutors say he admitted committing the murder.
Defense attorneys Harden and Irving disputed the reliability of the GPS and cell phone evidence, saying the government was relying on the testimony of the Hall brothers to prove its case, even though the two attorneys said the Halls should be considered unreliable and completely biased toward prosecutors.
“What lie are you going to believe?” Irving asked jurors in his closing argument, noting that both Halls have admitted they lied when they testified before a grand jury prior to the trial, committing perjury.
Similar to defense attorney Harden, he disputed the reliability of the GPS tracking information presented by prosecutors. He said there were no finger prints on the gun police said was the murder weapon and no video to show his client, Monte Johnson, was present where Dodds was shot.
Irving also noted that one of two eyewitnesses who saw the shooting but didn’t have a clear view of the shooter’s face testified that one of the two men at the scene of the shooting wore his hair in dreadlocks. Yet neither Johnson nor Cyheme Hall had dreads at that time, Irving said.
Noting that the case presented by prosecutors is riddled with doubt, Irving and Harden told jurors that they are required under the law for criminal trials to find someone not guilty if they have “reasonable doubt” on any aspect of the case.
“If you cannot say you are firmly convinced because you are seeing all these lies, you must find not guilty,” he said.
Shortly after their arrests Little and Johnson were charged with 16 criminal offenses in connection with the Dodds murder and the armed robberies of at least six other trans women on the night of Dodds’ murder.
The charges include felony first-degree 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 Dodds’ murder that were not designated as hate crimes, including possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence and assault 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 the judge to dismiss the hate crimes designations for Johnson’s offenses, saying his office has a policy of not commenting on specific details for trials in progress.
Defense attorney Harden moved to have the hate crime designations dismissed for Little, saying the government lacked evidence that her client targeted or had animus toward transgender people. Harden also argued that a hate crime designation would create prejudice against her client in the eyes of the jury.
In handing down his decision to dismiss the hate crime designations, Lee said he too believed there was insufficient evidence to support the designations.
The D.C. hate crimes statute calls for designating an underlying offense 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.
LGBT activists have complained in the past that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which serves as the prosecutor for D.C. criminal cases, has been reluctant to issue hate crime designations to cases of anti-LGBT violence.
Court observers, such as D.C. attorney Dale Edwin Sanders, have said prosecutors sometimes worry that a hate crime designation could confuse a jury and result in an acquittal for the underlying charge, including a charge of murder.
Court observers were uncertain about how long the jury would take to reach a verdict, among other things, because they must decide on 16 separate charges against Little and Johnson, including first-degree murder while armed.