Acting D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith, whose nomination to become permanent chief is pending before the D.C. Council, said she is committed to providing “fair and equal treatment” for all the city’s diverse communities, including the LGBTQ community, in her role as the city’s chief law enforcement officer.
In an Aug. 9 interview with the Washington Blade, Smith responded to questions raised by some in the LGBTQ community about whether due to her background as an ordained minister she may have biased views toward LGBTQ people based on her religious beliefs.
“Thank you for that question, and I certainly welcome any questions that members of any community may have with respect to my faith,” Smith told the Blade. “What I will tell you is I’ve been in law enforcement for 25 years. And I’ve always and will continue to provide fair and equal treatment to anyone who is subjected to any kind of threat or crime,” Smith said.
“And since we’re specifically speaking about the LGBTQ community, that translates to the LGBTQ community as well,” she said. “And my faith has nothing to do with me treating anyone differently,” she added.
“I served when I came into the Metropolitan Police Department as the Chief Equity Officer,” she said. “And my role was certainly about fair and equitable treatment for every employee of the Metropolitan Police Department,” said Smith. “And for me, that transfers to the members of our community – our businesses, our visitors, our tourists here in the District of Columbia.”
Asked whether that policy would apply to members of the LGBTQ community as well, Smith replied: “Absolutely. Listen, we have many members from the LGBTQ community here in MPD, including a transgender sworn member currently up to the rank of a lieutenant.”
Smith added, “We also have LGBTQ members in the reserve and volunteer corps supporting many functions in the department, including support of the LGBTQ Liaison Unit. We have a nationally recognized LGBTQ Liaison Unit.”
According to Smith, that unit, listed on the MPD website as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit (LGBTLU), provides services to crime victims, outreach to community meetings, and “training and support to the rest of the department as well as the community.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on July 17 nominated Smith to become the city’s next police chief. At the time her nomination was announced Smith was serving as an assistant chief. A short time later, the mayor named her acting chief while her nomination was pending before the D.C. Council, which is expected to approve the nomination when the Council returns from its summer recess.
If her nomination is approved by the Council, Smith would make history by becoming the first African-American woman to serve as the permanent D.C. police chief since the department was founded in 1861.
Smith joined the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department in May 2022 after having served as Chief of Police for the United States Park Police in the nation’s capital. Her more than 20 years of service with the Park Police included assignments at Park Police offices in New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco.
Among the topics the Blade raised with Smith during her interview was concern raised by some LGBTQ activists and other community activists that the shortfall of police officers that the department is currently facing has prevented the department from replacing members of the community liaison units, including the LGBT Liaison Unit, when members of those units retire or take other jobs.
Smith said she is committed to retaining the liaison units and doing all she can to keep them fully staffed.
“While we have no officers who have been reassigned away from those units, we do realize that attrition takes a toll on any area of the organization,” she told the Blade. “And what I want you to know is the Special Liaison Branch, which includes the teams servicing the LGBTQ plus community as well as our immigrant, our interfaith, deaf and hard of hearing communities – they play an important role in servicing and connecting with our diverse community,” Smith said.
“And this is especially true now as D.C. prepares to host World Pride in 2025,” she said, referring to D.C. having been selected to host the 2025 international LGBTQ Pride event, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from throughout the world.
“And so, what I have done as an initial step within the last couple of weeks is that I’ve approved four vacancies to be filled in the Special Liaison Branch,” Smith said. “And two of those vacancies will be for our LGBTQ unit.”
The Blade also asked Smith how she plans to address the issue of hate crimes at a time when D.C. police crime statistics show that over the past 10 years, the largest number of reported hate crimes in the city are those that have targeted LGBTQ people as victims.
“What I can say is in the department, we certainly have strong policies and training to make sure members can recognize hate crimes,” Smith said. “And officers have to report whether there are any indicators of a possible hate crime whenever they’re investigating or engaged in a case,” she added. “We have a multidisciplinary team that works together on reported hate crimes.”
The Blade asked Smith for her thoughts on calls by some community activists, including LGBTQ activists, for the decriminalization of prostitution involving consenting adults and for the police to de-prioritize making prostitution-related arrests for consenting adults.
“Well, I think our position today and our position has always been that we continue to enforce the laws of the District of Columbia,” she said, adding that in the past several years D.C. police have focused more on targeting sex worker customers or “Johns” in making prostitution-related arrests.
Smith said she was not familiar with the specifics of the D.C. police investigation into the unexplained death of D.C. gay resident Ernest Terrell Newkirk, 55, whose body was found May 28 on a Southeast D.C. street several hours after he attended an LGBTQ Black Pride dance party at a Capitol Hill gay bar. His partner of 21 years, Roger Turpin, said Newkirk’s wallet, phone, jewelry, and car were all missing at the time he was found.
Turpin has expressed concern that the detective initially assigned to the case declined to look for fingerprints on Newkirk’s car that was found two days later and was not interested in tracking down calls made by someone on Newkirk’s phone shortly after his body was found.
D.C. Police have said they have ruled out a homicide in the case because there were no signs of injuries on Newkirk’s body, but the cause of death has yet to be determined due to delays in chemical toxicology tests by the Office of the D.C. Chief Medical Examiner. A police spokesperson said the case remains under investigation.
Turpin said a new detective was assigned to the case and he is hopeful that police would aggressively investigate the case.
“What I can do is see if I can obtain some additional information from our investigators on this side,” Smith told the Blade. She said she knows from personal observation that MPD detectives “work very aggressively” on the cases to which they are assigned.
Asked if she has any message for the LGBTQ community in her role as Acting Chief of Police and in anticipation of her confirmation as permanent chief, Smith had this to say:
“Well, I can say personally the LGBTQ plus community will see me. They will see me out and about,” she added. “They will probably see me in spaces and places that they’re probably not familiar with seeing me in,” she said.
“And I plan to be very supportive. And if there’s anything that I can do to be of support to the LGBTQ community just as I would any other community, I would add, don’t hesitate to reach out,” she said. “If there’s anything I can learn new about various communities or different communities I’m open to that as well.”
A transcript of the full interview follows:
Acting D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith
Interview with Lou Chibbaro Jr.
August 9, 2023
Washington Blade: People in the LGBTQ community who are familiar with your record with the D.C. police and the U.S. Park Service have had good things to say about you. But some in the LGBTQ community may be interested in knowing whether your role as an ordained minister might have some impact on how you address LGBTQ-related issues. Historically, some clergy have not been supportive of LGBTQ people and even have opposed legislation to protect the rights of LGBTQ people. Might you have a message for those who may be curious about your role as a police chief and a clergy person?
Pamela Smith: So, what I can say, and thank you for the question. And I certainly welcome any questions that members of any community may have with respect to my faith. What I will tell you is I’ve been in law enforcement for 25 years. And I’ve always and will continue to provide fair and equal treatment to anyone who is subjected to any kind of threat or crime.
And I will always ensure that I provide fair and equal treatment to the members of the Metropolitan Police Department and the residents and the citizens that are visiting the District of Columbia. And my faith has nothing to do with me treating anyone differently. I served when I came into the Metropolitan Police Department as the Chief Equity Officer. And my role was certainly about fair and equitable treatment for every employee of the Metropolitan Police Department.
And for me that transfers to the members of our community – our businesses, our visitors, our tourists here in the District of Columbia.
Blade: Can we assume that would apply to members of the LGBTQ community as well?
Smith: Absolutely. Listen, we have many members from the LGBTQ community here in MPD, including a transgender sworn member currently up to the rank of a lieutenant. We also have LGBTQ members in the reserve and volunteer corps supporting many functions in the department, including support of the LGBTQ Liaison Unit. We have a nationally recognized LGBTQ Liaison Unit. They serve our community. They provide services to victims, regular outreach to meetings. And they provide training and support to the rest of the department as well as the community.
So, I state that I support and will always provide fair and equal treatment to all people. And since we’re specifically speaking about the LGBTQ community, that translates to the LGBTQ community as well.
Blade: Regarding your mention of the LGBTQ Liaison Unit, we have heard that due to the shortage of police officers on the force, the number of officers assigned to the liaison units, including the LGBTQ Liaison Unit, have declined, in some cases due to attrition. Can you comment on whether there is a problem in keeping the liaison units sufficiently staffed?
Smith: I don’t think there is a problem in keeping up the liaison units. I think we have to be honest and talk about the fact that we have low staffing numbers across the department. Certainly, we have many challenges as we make decisions on how we reposition some of our employees. And we will continue to do that throughout the years.
While we have no officers who have been reassigned away from those units, we do realize that attrition takes a toll on any area of the organization. And what I want you to know is the Special Liaison Branch, which includes the team servicing the LGBTQ+ community as well as our immigrant, our interfaith, deaf and hard of hearing communities – they play an important role in servicing and connecting with our diverse community.
And this is especially true now as D.C. prepares to host World Pride in 2025. And so, what I have done as an initial step within the last couple of weeks is that I’ve approved four vacancies to be filled in the Special Liaison Branch. And two of those vacancies will be for our LGBTQ unit.
Blade: The last we had heard was there were just three officers assigned to the LGBT Liaison Unit as of earlier this year.
Smith: Well, it’s important to me. I think I said to you as I think about enhancing numbers in some of our positions as we gain new employees across the police department, I recognize the importance of our Special Liaison Branch and the members of the team that provide a service to our community. It’s certainly important to me that we not only fill vacancies in other areas across the workforce, but I am also committed to doing the same thing with our Special Liaison Branch to include our LGBT community liaison unit.
Blade: Concerning the issue of hate crimes, the MPD data over the past 10 years shows that the largest number of reported hate crimes in D.C. are those that target members of the LGBTQ community. Is there anything you can say about the department’s efforts to address hate crimes?
Smith: What I can say is in the department, we certainly have strong policies and training to make sure members can recognize potential hate crimes, for all crimes. And officers have to report whether there are any indicators of a possible hate crime whenever they’re investigating or engaged in a case. We have a multidisciplinary team that works together on reported hate crimes.
And that also includes the Special Liaison Branch, which shares information from the community with the team and information on investigations within the community. As appropriate, we have a Criminal Investigation Division, which investigates all hate crimes. And then we have intelligence. And what we do with intelligence is that we share information that the department becomes aware of with the other two branches, such as our Criminal Investigation Division and our Special Liaison Branch.
We also coordinate with our federal partners, including the prosecutors, the FBI, the U.S. Park Police, as well as other law enforcement agencies across the District of Columbia. We also have great relationships with our colleges and universities – our college campuses, rather, to ensure that information is shared and any available resources that we might have, or they might have, that we can leverage those resources.
And I’m sure, as you know, it’s difficult sometimes for the police to address hate and bias in the community, which is why we partner with people and entities that can mean stronger messages such as with Rev. [Thomas] Bowen, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, and other faith leaders. We focus on preventing crime generally by responding to investigate hate crimes that happen and working with the community.
So, similarly like domestic violence or sexual assaults, we are concerned and making sure we encourage reporting of these types of events to ensure that we can drive these numbers down.
Blade: We have observed that in a number of cases the U.S. Attorney’s office drops the designation of a hate crime that D.C. police have sent to them after an arrest is made. Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s office have said sometimes there is insufficient evidence for them to obtain a conviction by a jury on a hate crimes case. Is MPD doing all it can to make sure the evidence for hate crimes cases is sufficient?
Smith: Absolutely. And I think that goes to what I said earlier, just making sure we continue to train our employees, our officers, our members to recognize potential hate crimes and making sure we’re providing the U.S. Attorneyi’s office with the appropriate evidence and documentation that’s needed to prosecute these cases.
Blade: Some in the LGBTQ community have joined advocates for sex workers in asking whether D.C. police should be devoting their resources, at a time when violent crime is rising, to arresting sex workers, including transgender women who sometimes are forced to engage in survival sex work because they can’t find other employment. We hear that arrests of transgender sex workers have occurred in recent years in an area along Eastern Avenue near the Maryland line, but that MPD may be changing its policy this year by not making as many of those arrests when the parties involved are consenting adults. What can you say about that?
Smith: Well, I would definitely never say that we’re not focused on all aspects of crimes throughout the District of Columbia and that the officers are less concerned and there’s less of an interest in making sure we are addressing all crimes. In the department, we work very closely with many of our community partners such as HIPS to try and address community concerns. And to make sure that individuals engaged in survival sex work have other options.
At MPD we have made five arrests this year, all of which were of Johns, not sex workers. I think we conducted an operation within our Sixth District. And that includes one of the areas that you spoke about, Eastern Avenue… We’ve made like five arrests this year. And what I will say is between the years of 2018 and 2023, as late as August 6, which is a couple of days ago, we’ve arrested over 2,150 Johns related to prostitution.
Blade: Again, some in the LGBTQ community as well as in the community at large there has been talk of decriminalizing sex work only between consenting adults and deemphasizing arrests involving consenting adults. No one is condoning the sex trafficking of minors. Does that put MPD in a difficult position since you’ve said you must enforce the law?
Smith: Well, I think our position today and our position has always been that we continue to enforce the laws of the District of Columbia.
Blade: On another matter, the partner of a D.C. gay man whose body was found on a street in Southeast D.C. — on 46th Place, S.E. — the day after he attended an LGBTQ Black Pride event at a bar on Capitol Hill over Memorial Day weekend has raised concerns that police are not sufficiently investigating this case. The partner says the man’s wallet, phone, and car were all missing before the car was found a few days later in another location. He says the detective at the time was not interested in looking for fingerprints inside the car when it was found or in tracking down phone calls made on the partner’s phone in an incident, he thinks, was a carjacking. Paris Lewbel, the MPD spokesperson, has said the case is still under investigation. Is this something you are aware of and which you might comment on?
Smith: Well, I am not familiar with the particulars of this case or investigation. But, in spaces where I’m not familiar with it and also if it’s still under investigation based as Paris has shared with you, that would be my position as well. What I can do is see if I can obtain some additional information from our investigators on this side.
What I will say and will say this outwardly is that our detectives work very aggressively. I’ve seen them since I’ve been here – I’ve been with the Metropolitan Police Department now for almost 16 months. And I have seen them workday in and day out. As a matter of fact, I’m often concerned about their emotional well-being because they are always in the office, always working.
They take these cases very personally. And I know they would do their due diligence if there was any foul play or anything that may have been associated with this case or any particular case. I’ve seen them really work hard. And I don’t think in this particular case it would be any different.
Blade: The partner did tell us yesterday that another detective contacted him. He thinks it might have been after the Washington Blade story ran on this case. He said the detective told him they are continuing to work on the case.
Smith: Excellent – that’s good to hear.
Blade: Is there anything else you may wish to say that the LGBTQ community might want to know regarding your plans for the MPD?
Smith: Well, I can say personally the LGBTQ+ community will see me. They will see me out and about. They will probably see me in spaces and places that they’re probably not familiar with seeing me in. And I plan to be very supportive. And if there’s anything that I can do to be of support to the LGBTQ community just as I would with any other community, I would add don’t hesitate to reach out. If there’s anything I can learn new about various communities or different communities I’m open to that as well.
Blade: Thank you very much, chief, for this interview.
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Activists, policy makers mark Celebrate Bisexual Day in D.C.
BiPlus Organizing US hosted event at HRC
BiPlus Organizing US on Saturday hosted a Celebrate Bisexual Day event at the Human Rights Campaign.
Fiona Dawson, co-founder of BiPlus Organizing US, and Mélanie Snail, committee member of the organization, emceed the event. HRC Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Rebecca Hershey welcomed attendees.
Heyshey discussed her journey as a bisexual, mixed race, Jewish woman. Hershey paraphrased Adrienne Maree Brown, stating “change is coming, we are creating change.”
PFLAG Learning and Inclusion Manager Mackenzie Harte gave a presentation on the history of bisexual identities, defined terms surrounding gender and sexuality and went over statistics of discrimination and health disparities that bisexual individuals face.
Harte’s presentation noted 48 percent of bisexual individuals reported an annual income of less than $30,000, compared to 30 percent of gay men, 39 percent of lesbians and 28 percent of all adults in the U.S.
Harte went on to say 28 percent of bisexual students report having attempted suicide; and bisexual people have a higher risk of mood disorders, substance abuse and mental illness than their lesbian, gay, or straight cohorts. Bisexual people of all genders face higher rates of sexual assault than those same peers. One reason for these statistics is isolation: 39 percent of bisexual men and 33 percent of bisexual women report not being out to any health care provider, and only 44 percent of bisexual youth report having an adult they could turn to if they were sad.
Harte also spoke about the Bisexual Manifesto, which the Bay Area Bisexual Network wrote in 1990.
“The bisexual manifesto very intentionally was not binary,” Harte said.
They said the text works against the stigma and stereotypes that claim bisexuality is confined to “male, female.”
Tania Israel, a bisexual advocate and psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared some of her bisexual haikus, which she calls, “bikus.”
Dawson moderated the next panel.
Panelists included Nicole Holmes, a bisexual advocate and public health professional, National Center for Transgender Equality Communications Director Leroy Thomas and NCTE Policy Counsel Kris Tassone.
The panel talked about how shame and stigma drive the statistics that negatively impact the bisexual community. Another word that came up as a driving force was “intersectionality.”
Holmes said that when it comes to intersectionality, it’s important to not just “list identities,” but to look deep into “the purpose behind why we are talking about intersectional identities” in the first place.
Adrian Shanker, senior advisor on LGBTQ+ Health Equity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about health equity for the bisexual community.
“Striving for health equity remains a core priority. It also remains an unmet dream,” said Shanker. “Queer people have always had to be our own health advocates.” While health equity may not be here yet, Shanker says there is much in the works for the LGBTQ community, bisexuals specifically.
Shanker cited a National Cancer Institute funding opportunity that invites research proposals to cancer care for sexual and gender minorities, stating bisexual specific proposals are welcome. The impending potential government shutdown may postpone it.
The Biden-Harris administration is also working to ban so-called conversion therapy at the federal level. Additionally, 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, began a program to offer specialized support for LGBTQ youth and young adults last year.
Shanker said bisexual people should prioritize preventative screenings for skin cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer, regular cervical and anal pap tests, mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies.
“If you have a body part, get it screened,” said Shanker.
Megan Townsend, senior director of entertainment research and analysis for the GLAAD Media Institute, did a presentation on bisexual representation in the media and opportunities for advancement.
“I want to see bi+/pan colors displayed on the White House,” said Dawson. “I want every national LGBTQIA+ organization to be talking about us, to put our concerns front and center.”
The data presented can be found here.
Whitman-Walker celebrates opening of new Max Robinson Center
Mayor, city officials call facility major benefit for Southeast D.C.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, joined by city officials and leaders of Whitman-Walker Health, cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center at the city’s St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C.
The six-story healthcare and research facility will enable Whitman-Walker to expand its wide range of services to the community, with a focus on Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents, officials said. Those services, which began when the facility opened its doors on Aug. 14, include primary, dental, and HIV care, behavioral health services, substance use counseling, and a pharmacy, according to a Whitman-Walker statement.
“Today, we’re opening a bigger Max Robinson Center, and in two years we’ll be opening a new hospital on this same campus – and together, these two facilities are going to change the way we deliver healthcare in D.C.,” Bowser told the crowd of about 200 that turned out for the event held in a courtyard next to the newly opened building.
“We’re incredibly grateful that Whitman-Walker is part of the legacy that we’re building on the St. Elizabeths East campus,” the mayor said. “This campus represents our commitment to Ward 8 and our community to a stronger, healthier, and equitable D.C.”
Whitman-Walker and city officials noted that the new building replaces the longtime LGBTQ supportive health care organization’s original Max Robinson Center that opened in 1993 on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia about a mile away from the new facility. The center was named in honor of award-winning TV news journalist Max Robinson who became the first African American to serve as co-anchor of a network news program at ABC News in 1978. Robinson died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS in 1988.
Bowser and others who spoke at the event praised Whitman-Walker for providing high quality healthcare through its Max Robinson center for underserved communities in city neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
The opening of the new Max Robinson Center comes on Whitman-Walker’s 50th year since its founding in 1973 as an LGBTQ community health clinic in a church basement in Georgetown, Whitman-Walker CEO Naseema Shafi noted at the ribbon cutting event.
“We are thrilled to unveil this once-in-a-lifetime healthcare and research expansion during our 50th anniversary year,” Shafi said. “Our new healthcare home will significantly improve access to excellent healthcare for all residents,” she said.
Among other things, the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to serve an additional 10,000 patients per year more than it was able to serve at the original Max Robinson Center, a statement released by Whitman-Walker says. An important part of its services will include mental health and behavioral services, officials said.
There are more than 40 exam rooms, eight dental suites, six group therapy rooms and a psychotherapy suite in the new facility, the officials said in the statement.
The statement says the new building will also serve as headquarters for the Whitman-Walker Institute, an arm of the healthcare organization that for many years has conducted HIV related research. It says the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to expand its research “from 19 to over 60 clinical trials, including innovations in cancer research and continued progress toward finding a cure for HIV.”
Others who attended or spoke at the event included D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7); Japer Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeths East Development; and Debrah Wells, a Whitman-Walker patient who said the substance use treatment and counseling she received at the Max Robinson Center “saved my life.”
Also speaking were Louis Dubin, managing partner of Redbrick development company, which led the development of the building project; and Jim Davis, president of Davis Construction, the company that built the new facility. Both pointed out that they worked with banks and other lenders along with financial support from the city that made the financing of the new Max Robinson Center possible.
Whitman-Walker CEO Shafi told the Washington Blade after the ribbon cutting event that while Whitman-Walker has expanded its services to include the wider community in the years since its founding as an LGBTQ clinic, its commitment to serving the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community continues in all its facilities, including the new Max Robinson Center.
“What’s interesting about Whitman-Walker of today — when we started in 1973, we were started by community for community, and we were responding to the needs at that time particularly of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So, now we’ve continued to take care of people, we will continue to do so,” she added.
“And this new site in Congress Heights gives us the opportunity to take care of even more community members, parts of the LGBTQ community and the greater Washington region,” she said, noting that Whitman-Walker currently has about 2,500 transgender or gender expansive people in care, and 3,500 people with HIV in care.
Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years
Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term
Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.
The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.
Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.
Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.
Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.
Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.
The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.
Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.
Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.
At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.
Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.
He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.
The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.
The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.
The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.
It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.
“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.
Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.
Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.
Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.
Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W. where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.
“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.
Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.
Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.
“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”
Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.
“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.
After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.
She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.
“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.
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