After four days, D.C. jury continues to deliberate in ’08 stabbing death

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that a knife found at the scene of Tiffany Gates’s death was not tested for fingerprints or DNA. The knife was tested, but Robert Ridley’s prints and DNA were not found on it. The article also incorrectly said that DNA from Ridley and an unknown third person was found on Gates’s sweat shirt. The sweat shirt was Ridley’s; the DNA found on it belonged to Gates and the third person. This version has been corrected.

The dead woman’s ex-boyfriend, who had made hundreds of threatening phone calls to her from jail before escaping from a halfway house, was found minutes after she was stabbed to death. Caught in a basement apartment, he was stained with her blood.

To the prosecution, it looked like a classic case of deadly domestic violence. “He kicked down her door, stabbed her several times in the chest, lungs and neck, and then got underneath a sink and hid,” one prosecutor told a District jury.

But after a seven-day trial and four days of deliberations, four men and eight women have been unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charges against Roderick Ridley, the D.C. man who police say fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend. On Wednesday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher ordered the jurors to resume deliberations Friday.

It has been a difficult two weeks for the family of Tiffany Gates. Her relatives have sat in the courtroom and taken in graphic testimony, autopsy photos, medical examiner’s reports and recordings of profanity-laced jailhouse calls between Gates and Ridley.

On the night of Nov. 21, 2008, prosecutors say, Ridley, 34, kicked in the door of Gates’s Southeast Washington apartment and stabbed her to death. Gates, 33, had called police and a U.S. marshal for help; the marshal was on the phone with her, awaiting backup outside her apartment building in his pickup truck, when he heard her scream, “He’s kicking down my door.”

Seven minutes later, after the marshal and a police officer were able to get inside the building and up three flights of stairs, Gates was found bleeding in the hallway outside her apartment. Police later found the 6-foot-4 Ridley hiding under the sink of a vacant apartment.

But Ridley’s attorney, Cary Clennon, argued that his client is innocent and that homicide detectives and prosecutors can only prove that his client might have been at the apartment when Gates was killed — not that he killed her.

A knife was found but Ridley’s fingerprints or DNA were not found on it. Gates’s fingernails were never tested for Ridley’s DNA. There were no witnesses. Ridley was found with two stab wounds to his arm. And while Gates’ DNA was found on Ridley’s bloody sweatshirt, so was the DNA of a third, unknown person. That DNA was never identified.

Authorities immediately assumed that Ridley was guilty, Clennon argued, and did not look for someone else who may have been in the apartment with Ridley and Gates that evening. They suffered from “tunnel vision,” he argued.

“Sometimes,” Clennon said, “the boyfriend didn’t do it.”

Prosecutors are confident that Ridley is the killer. After a year of dating, Gates took out a restraining order against him. In separate hearings, two judges warned Ridley to stay away from her.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cynthia Wright and Melinda Williams played dozens of graphic collect phone calls that Ridley made to Gates when he was in D.C. jail after his arrest for setting fire to the Southeast apartment that he and Gates once shared.

At one point, there were more than 400 calls over three months. “I hate you,” Ridley said during one. “I hope you die. I’m going to have to come out of here sometime. . . . I hate the ground you walk on.”

When Ridley was moved from jail to the halfway house, prosecutors said, his plan was to carry out the threats he had made.

But Clennon said that if Ridley had been full of rage, as prosecutors argued, he would have immediately made his way to Gates’s apartment when he escaped from the halfway house. Ridley wasn’t found hiding in Gates’s apartment building until four weeks after his escape.

Although all 12 jurors aren’t fully convinced that Ridley killed Gates, they were sure that he burglarized her apartment and threatened her. Prosecutors charged Ridley with 30 counts, including first-degree murder, theft, threats, conspiracy and burglary, and the jury returned a partial verdict on Tuesday finding him guilty of burglary and obstruction of justice charges.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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