Nearly 3 Years Later, Still Seeking Robert Wone's Killer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
D.C. residents have been told that murder rates are down. So far in 2009, there have been 33 unsolved homicides out of the 79 committed in the District, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. That may appear to be good news, but efforts to crack many of the unsolved and cold cases appear to be hampered by an often lackadaisical approach to simple investigative procedures. That includes not just our local police force but federal law enforcement agencies as well.
We've been looking into one specific unsolved murder from our neighborhood. A week from now, on Aug. 2, it will be exactly three years since Washington lawyer Robert Wone was found stabbed to death at 1509 Swann St. NW.
Unlike the daily roll call of so many of the District's homicides -- solved or otherwise -- to which many residents have become inured, the Wone case is highly atypical:
The crime scene was on a block of million-dollar homes; the victim was a well-connected, up-and-coming young attorney who counted now-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as a friend and colleague. The three suspects, though not charged with murder, have been indicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and crime scene tampering, and are all accomplished and successful men in the community. Not to mention, as The Post's Paul Duggan reported, there is the suggestion of a "strangely drawn-out sexual assault" involving the victim.
However, since we and co-editors Doug Johnson and Michael Kremin began to research and write about this case last year, we have found that the official investigation of this crime and its subsequent prosecution are sadly all too typical.
First, there have been the numerous law enforcement mistakes. Each of the three men who were at home on the night of the murder was separately interviewed by the police, but authorities failed to videotape several hours of at least one of the suspects' interrogations and missed the first hour of another's. Forensics teams looking for blood or other biological evidence at the scene misapplied a common chemical used in investigations, Ashley's Reagent, tainting much of the evidence recovered.
In a Post story two months after the murder, then-Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said that detectives were waiting for the FBI to complete tests on blood and other items from the crime scene and that he wanted the FBI to treat the case with urgency, hoping to get the results in a matter of weeks or months. Yet we learned just this April that a key piece of evidence recovered from the crime scene that may be spotted with the victim's blood still has not been tested.
It gets worse. A D.C. police detective found Wone's BlackBerry at the scene and saw two draft/unsent e-mail messages on it. Not only was the BlackBerry not tested for fingerprints, nor the messages transcribed, but the Secret Service, which managed the data forensics, failed to "image" the device before it was recycled back into service at Wone's place of employment, Radio Free Asia. This critical piece of evidence is now considered lost.
Then there are the larger institutional bungles. Another failure in evidence gathering may have resulted from the 10-day lapse between the Aug. 4 issuance of a search warrant of the defendants' car and the warrants' Aug. 14 execution. Ten critical days lost. An understaffed District medical examiner's office failed to test for several drugs possibly used to incapacitate Wone, despite evidence suggesting that may have been the case. And now, only three cubic centimeters of Wone's blood remain for the further testing that has been ordered by the presiding judge. What physical and biological evidence that was saved (and not tainted) made its way to the District's woefully mismanaged evidence storage facility.
As for the judicial process, three years have seen an equal number of prosecutors come and go, leading some to label it an "orphan case."
Many want to see justice in the scores of unsolved cases, but this one example has revealed a chilling fact: Being a homicide victim in the District may be a great equalizer; position guarantees you nothing. If the slain former colleague of the U.S. attorney general gets lethargic and sloppy treatment from authorities, then what hope do the rest of us have? The District may be a great place to live, but it's a bad place to die.
The writers are editors of whomurderedrobertwone.com.