6-Month Term for Assault in Fatal Beating Near D.C. Bar
Thursday, October 15, 2009
A District man who punched a Maryland man outside a gay nightclub in Northwest Washington was sentenced Wednesday to six months in jail. The victim later died from his injuries, and the reduced charges sparked outrage among gay rights advocates.
Robert Hannah, 19, had pleaded guilty to one count of simple assault in the beating death of Tony Randolph Hunter, 37. According to investigators, Hunter allegedly grabbed Hannah's buttocks and groin near the Be Bar nightclub near Eighth and N Streets NW on Sept. 7, 2008. Hannah punched Hunter, who fell and hit his head on the sidewalk. Hunter was taken to a hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and later died from blunt-force trauma to the back of his head.
Hannah was originally charged with involuntary manslaughter. But after a nine-month investigation that included contradictory witness interviews, prosecutors reduced the charge to simple assault, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Flynn told a D.C. Superior Court judge.
According to court records, one witness saw Hannah yelling "Terrace" over Hunter's body before fleeing. Terrace was a reference to the Northwest landmark known as Wood Terrace, near where the nightclub is located.
Another witness saw Hannah punch Hunter but said a friend of Hannah's kicked Hunter in the head while the victim was lying on the ground. At least two of the witnesses had criminal records.
Flynn said interviews, including one with a friend of Hunter's who was with him the night of the attack, offered varying -- often contradictory -- accounts, including how much Hunter and his friend had to drink.
Because of the contradictions and lack of reliability in the witness accounts, Flynn said, his office "could not prove a manslaughter took place" and instead charged Hannah with misdemeanor assault.
Hunter's family members, as well as D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), said they were disappointed that the U.S. attorney for the District declined to pursue a manslaughter or murder charge.
Before issuing his sentence, Judge Rafael Diaz acknowledged many of the letters written to the court from gay rights groups and Hunter's family asking Diaz to sentence Hannah to the maximum 180 days.
During the hearing, Hannah told Hunter's mother, sister and stepfather -- who sat in the front row wiping away tears -- that he was sorry, although he never looked at the family and kept his eyes on Diaz.
Diaz told Hannah that he was lucky that he wasn't charged with homicide.
"You have to consider other options other than violence," Diaz said. "You could have done other [things] than punch or hurt someone."
Before a marshal led Hannah away in handcuffs, Diaz also ordered him to pay $50 in court costs.
"We drove 300 miles to see him get six months in jail for killing my son," said Hunter's stepfather, John Yarborough of Franklinton, N.C., Hunter's home town.
Hunter's relatives said they believe more people were involved. "My son was 6-foot-3 and about 200 pounds and a former Army sergeant," Yarborough said. "One punch from that little guy wouldn't have done that.
"The [prosecutor] didn't press the witnesses. They didn't work hard enough."