Man Acquitted in 2007 Slaying at Pr. George's Party

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Prince George's County jury found a man not guilty of murder yesterday in a 2007 shooting in Oxon Hill, delivering what a defense attorney called a "complete repudiation" of the testimony of two county police officers who were present when the shooting occurred.

The defendant, Donte Guzman, was also acquitted of trying to kill the off-duty officers who shot him moments after the slaying, striking him in the hip and leg.

Guzman, 20, was charged with killing Anthony F. Fontane, 39, in December outside a Knights of Columbus hall. The two officers were moonlighting as security guards.

The officers' testimony at the trial differed distinctly from their initial statements. In addition, no gun was found on or near Guzman.

"It's a complete repudiation of the officers' testimony, and it goes to show the system does work," Guzman's attorney, Thomas C. Mooney, said after the verdict was returned in Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro.

Roman Korionoff, a spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, said: "Sometimes it's not a perfect case. We do the best we can with the resources we have."

On Dec. 30, the officers, Sgt. Gregory Sanders and Cpl. Ashli Tims, told homicide detectives that they were inside the hall when they heard gunfire, according to the charging documents. The officers said they rushed outside and "observed the defendant, Guzman, firing a gun into a black Cadillac truck" in which Fontane was seated, the documents say.

But in an account later to a police internal affairs investigator, as well as in their testimony, the officers said they were outside the hall when the shooting began. Tims testified that she heard gunfire but did not say she saw Guzman shoot into the truck.

In his closing argument, Assistant State's Attorney Michael Pearson defended the officers' credibility, saying the differences in their accounts amounted to "minor discrepancies."

"They weren't looking for trouble," Pearson said.

Mooney said in his closing argument that Sanders and Tims fired 25 rounds at the wrong man.

"The reality is an unarmed man was shot," he told jurors. "You are being presented with a case to cover for the officers."

The police department's internal investigation found no wrongdoing by Sanders or Tims. The state's attorney's office presented evidence about Sanders and Tim's actions to a grand jury, which chose not to indict the officers.

After three days of testimony and arguments, the jury began deliberating Thursday. Sanders and Tims were the state's two key witnesses. No physical evidence linked Guzman to the shooting, and one defense witness said he and Guzman were together when the shooting began.

Fontane was shot to death as he sat in the driver's seat of the Cadillac, in the parking lot of the hall on Tucker Road. About 100 people were gathered for a party in honor of Michol Brown, 24, who had been fatally shot in Southeast Washington. The gathering was intended as a birthday party, but after Brown's death, his friends decided it would be held to celebrate his life.

Sanders testified that he was in the hall when a young woman told him to go outside. Sanders said he got Tims's attention and led her outside the main door. Sanders testified that he was looking at a group gathered to his right when he heard a shot fired to his left.

Sanders said he looked to his left and saw someone firing into the driver's seat of the Escalade, its door open, from about 18 inches. Sanders said he drew his service weapon and ordered the assailant to drop the gun at least three times. The gunman began to move away from the Escalade, and at one point, Sanders said, he saw a muzzle flash, which he thought was a shot fired toward him. Sanders said he fired 12 rounds toward the man.

When Guzman fell, Sanders said, he and Tims got to him within 15 seconds. Sanders said he patted Guzman down and found no weapon. Sanders testified that about 50 people quickly gathered around him and Tims. Many in the crowd seemed hostile, and he kept his gun out to move people back, Sanders said.

Tims testified that when she and Sanders went outside, she was looking at a group on her right and heard "perhaps five gunshots."

Tims said she saw him running from the vehicle.

On cross-examination, Mooney asked Tims whether the man fired at her. "I believe he did," Tims replied, saying she had seen a muzzle flash. Under further questioning, Tims said the muzzle flash could have come from Sanders's weapon or hers.

She said she and Sanders were within about seven feet of Guzman when he fell.

In his closing argument, Mooney said there is no evidence anyone fired at Sanders or Tims. A county police evidence technician testified that two marks on a nearby wall were made by bullets, but a police internal affairs investigator testified that the marks were not from bullets. The prosecution stipulated toward the end of the trial that the marks were not made by bullets.

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