A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday scheduled a second trial for two men charged with the July 4, 2016 murder of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds for Feb. 25, 2020, saying conflicting schedules for defense lawyers and prosecutors prevented him from scheduling the trial sooner.
The decision by Judge Milton C. Lee to schedule a new trial for defendants Monte Johnson, 23, and Jolonta Little, 28, came one month after the jury in the first trial announced it was deadlocked over the pending charge of first degree murder while armed against the two men, prompting Lee to declare a mistrial.
Less than a week later prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they would seek to bring the two men up for another trial on the murder charge and possibly several other robbery and fire arms possession charges against Little and Johnson on which the jury also became deadlocked.
Lee’s action took place during an April 5 status hearing in which the defense attorneys urged him to consider dismissing the case over what they called misconduct and possible jury tampering by one of the prosecutors during the first trial.
They were referring to the dramatic disclosure by the chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Homicide Section that one of the two prosecutors working on the case had approached a fellow prosecutor about whether a plea bargain deal should be offered in an unrelated case involving the son of one of the jurors in Little and Johnson’s trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman disclosed the matter in a letter to Judge Lee and the defense attorneys that has been withheld from the court’s public records under seal. However, it was discussed in open court during the trial when the jury was not in the courtroom.
Defense attorneys said the letter stated the prosecutor in question, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Saunders, suggested to his fellow prosecutor that he consider informing jurors there were other options for the juror’s son other than a jail sentence such as probation.
“There is no evidence that this has impacted the jury,” Gorman told Lee on Feb. 25 during a session of the trial when the jury was not present. “There is no indication of jury tampering,” he said, noting that none of the jurors, including the one whose son’s case was discussed by prosecutor Saunders, were aware that this was happening.
Defense attorneys Brandi Harden, who represents Little, and Kevin Irving, who represents Johnson, disputed Gorman’s assessment, calling the action by Saunders a possible attempt at jury tampering. Harden argued that had the juror learned that a prosecutor was suggesting the juror’s son receive a less severe sentence the juror could have become biased in favor of prosecutors in the Little-Johnson trial.
Harden said the action by Saunders should be considered grounds for dismissing the case, something Lee declined to do. But Lee said he would address the issue after the trial was over, possibly at a court hearing. When Harden and fellow defense attorney Irving brought up the matter at Friday’s status hearing, Lee agreed to such a hearing. He scheduled it to be held on Aug. 2 of this year.
At Friday’s hearing Harden said the action by prosecutor Saunders “rose to the level of obstruction of justice.” She again called on Lee to consider the action by the prosecutor as grounds for dismissing the case.
Lee instructed the attorneys to submit to him written statements outlining what they want him to do over the matter by June 17. He instructed prosecutors to respond to the defense statement by June 19.
During Little and Johnson’s month-long trial, which took place mostly in February, prosecutors presented witnesses that testified that Little, Johnson and two other men with them during the early morning hours of July 4, 2016 targeted at least seven transgender women, including Dodds, for armed robberies on streets where trans sex workers congregated.
The prosecutors pointed to testimony by one of the other two men that Johnson shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range when she resisted his attempt to rob her on Division Avenue, N.E. near where she lived.
The defense argued that the government’s case rested almost totally on the two men who allegedly accompanied Little and Johnson on the night Dodds was shot. The two men, Cyheme Hall, 23, and his brother, Shareem Hall, 25, pleaded guilty to second degree murder as part of a plea bargain offer by prosecutors that included their agreement to testify at the trial as government witnesses.
Although prosecutors presented numerous other witnesses who they said corroborated the testimony by the Hall brothers, defense attorneys Harden and Irving told the jury the Hall brothers were habitual liars with no credibility and anything they said in their testimony should be discounted.
Among other things, the defense attorneys argued that the Halls’ motive was aimed at telling prosecutors what the prosecutors wanted to hear so they could get off with a lighter sentence.
Prosecutor Saunders, who delivered the government’s closing argument, reminded the jury of testimony by other witnesses stating that Little admitted to shooting Dodds in a phone conversation from the jail where he was being held after his arrest that was recorded by jail officials.
In a development that troubled LGBT activists, Lee dismissed a designation of the murder charge as a hate crime, as initially brought by prosecutors, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence that Johnson and Little were motivated by hate in targeting Dodds for an armed robbery that turned into a murder.
Prosecutors asked that the hate crime designation be dropped against Johnson but objected when the defense called for dropping the designation against Little. Lee ruled in favor of the defense by dismissing the hate crime designation against Little as well as Johnson.