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Charges in Wone slaying based on sexual orientation, defense attorneys say

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; B01

Police and prosecutors charged three men with conspiracy in the Robert Wone homicide case because of their sexual orientation and their nontraditional relationship with one another and not based on any evidence, defense attorneys argued on the opening day of the trial.

The three main defense attorneys spent 90 minutes Monday telling a D.C. Superior Court judge that federal prosecutors have wrongly charged their clients with covering up Wone's 2006 fatal stabbing.

Instead, they told the judge, an unknown intruder climbed a seven-foot fence and came through the back door of the trio's Dupont Circle townhouse the evening of Aug. 2, 2006, when Wone, 32, was staying there, and stabbed him to death as he slept in a guest room. The attorneys argued that their clients had nothing to do with Wone's killing and have cooperated with police.

Joseph R. Price, 39, Victor J. Zaborsky, 44, and Dylan M. Ward, 39, were charged in 2008 with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence. They face a maximum of 38 years in prison if found guilty on all counts. No one has been charged with killing Wone.

Wone, a Washington lawyer who worked as general counsel for Radio Free Asia, was a college friend of Price's, and Price allowed Wone to spend the night after a long day at work so he wouldn't have to return to Oakton.

Defense attorneys said the three men, who are gay, are in a committed, three-way relationship and refer to themselves as a "family." It was that relationship that made police and prosecutors suspect they were involved in Wone's slaying, the attorney said.

"The police got mired and infatuated in a theory based on ignorance. Why is a straight man coming to the house of a gay man?" Price's attorney, Bernie Grimm, told Judge Lynn Leibovitz. Last week, the defendants opted against a jury trial, leaving Leibovitz as the sole arbiter of their fate.

The attorneys outlined for the judge how Price and Wone had been friends since their undergraduate college days at the College of William and Mary, how Price organized Wone's 30th birthday party at his home, and how the men, along with Wone and his wife, Katherine, had often socialized together.

"There is no reason Mr. Price would hurt his friend or let somebody hurt him and cover that up," Grimm said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner said the case has nothing to do with lifestyle. He argued that the men not only know who killed Wone but are also covering up for the killer and that their loyalty to one another has kept them quiet. "They consider themselves a tight, cohesive family. Sadly, Robert Wone was not a member of that family," Kirschner said.

The men were the only ones in the house at the time of the stabbing, and there was no sign of a break-in.

"In the short term, these men have gotten away with it. The murder has not been solved," Kirschner said.

During their opening statements, defense attorneys pointed to what they consider several holes in the government's case. For example, more than 100 fingerprint samples were taken from the house. Four of those prints did not belong to any of the three defendants or Wone, the attorneys said.

And even though prosecutors allege that the townhouse had been cleaned and Wone's body moved, defense attorneys told the judge that there was no evidence of any cleaning agents or detergents at the crime scene.

The defense attorneys also noted that Wone's wallet, keys and Movado watch were all found at the house. If the three men had made up the intruder story, they said, why would they have left Wone's valuables?

Prosecutors had believed that Wone was incapacitated during his attack, explaining why there were no signs of a struggle. But the men's attorneys said that Wone was asleep when he was stabbed, pointing out that a mouth guard he used every night was still in his mouth.

Ward's attorney, David Schertler, accused detectives of not doing a complete investigation. He pointed to one of the big mysteries in the case to make his point: the murder weapon.

A knife found next to Wone's body was the wrong size to have inflicted the three fatal stab wounds, prosecutors have said, arguing that it was planted. Wone was killed by another knife that was missing from a cutlery set Ward kept in the closet of his second-floor bedroom, authorities said. That knife remains missing.

Schertler said a better investigation would have determined that the knife in Ward's set has been missing for nearly 30 years and that the set had changed owners three times before Ward got it. Schertler said the actual knife was in Seattle with another person.

The attorneys said the knife found next to Wone's body was the knife used in his slaying and asked why, if their clients had staged the crime scene, they would have planted a knife instead of saying that the intruder took it.

"The prosecution's theory is riddled with holes," Schertler said. "There was no conspiracy or fabrication."

Zaborsky's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, said the government's case was a "theory chasing evidence."

In the crowded courtroom behind their attorneys, Price, a former intellectual property lawyer, sat between Zaborsky and Ward but closest to Zaborsky. Price and Zaborsky wear gold wedding bands on their fingers, while Ward, who doesn't wear a ring, sits farthest to the right of the two and doesn't engage in conversation with his roommates. The three have been free pending the trial and live together in the suburbs.

Wone's widow was the first witness called Monday after opening statements. She testified that her husband worked late that evening to meet the night staff at his new job and to take a continuing-education class. Wone said her husband e-mailed two friends to see if either had space at their District homes so he wouldn't have to make the long trek back to Oakton. Price was the first to respond.

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