Trial in Swann Street killing of Robert Wone enters third week

Robert Wone was killed in 2006 inside 1509 Swann Street NW, the home of a college friend and two other men.
Robert Wone was killed in 2006 inside 1509 Swann Street NW, the home of a college friend and two other men. (By Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

For two weeks, prosecutors in the Robert Wone conspiracy trial have called police officers, homicide detectives, and medical and forensics experts to testify about how the Washington lawyer was killed and the evidence surrounding his Aug. 2, 2006, stabbing death.

Now prosecutors plan to present evidence that three housemates who lived at 1509 Swann St. NW and were home that night know who killed their houseguest and are covering for the killer or killers.

The three men -- Joseph R. Price, 39, Victor J. Zaborsky, 44, and Dylan M. Ward, 40 -- have sat in a third-floor courtroom of D.C. Superior Court among nearly a dozen criminal defense attorneys and junior associates assigned to their case, listening as prosecutors have presented their case to Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who at the defendants' request will decide the case without a jury.

Each has been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence in connection with the killing of Wone, 32, who had planned to sleep at the men's house after working late at his job as general counsel for Radio Free Asia. The men housemates, who have said they are in a three-way, committed relationship, told authorities an intruder entered through an unlocked back door of their house and stabbed Wone three times in the chest as he slept in a guest room. Police said there was no sign of a robbery and no evidence an intruder had been in the house. Defense attorneys for Price, Zaborsky and Ward say police prematurely halted their investigation after incorrectly linking them to Wone's death. No one has been charged with the killing. But prosecutors argue that the three men have shown a history of covering for people close to them who get into trouble.

To illustrate that theory, prosecutors, led by Glenn Kirschner, plan to outline details of a burglary of the Swann Street townhouse two months after Wone was killed, a burglary prosecutors say was orchestrated by Price's younger brother, Michael C. Price.

According to court records, on Oct. 30, 2006, Price, 38, of Silver Spring, used the key that his brother gave him and, along with another man, burglarized the house while the three housemates were at work.

Items stolen included two flat-screen TVs, three DVD players, two audio receivers and a VCR.

Kirschner wants to use the burglary as additional evidence of the three housemates' guilt. When the men returned to their home and discovered it had been burglarized, the prosecution contends, they determined that Michael Price was involved. Prosecutors said the men initially delayed reporting the burglary to police primarily because Joseph Price insisted on protecting his brother.

On Nov. 10, according to the filings, one of Price's friends, Phelps Collins III, 39, of Washington, was arrested after pawning several of the items. Collins told police he and Michael Price entered the Swann Street house with a set of spare keys that belonged to the younger Price.

During the investigation, Price revealed to police that his brother had a key to the house. Prosecutors said it was the first time the men said that anyone other than them, their basement tenant and the contractors who were working on the house had a key.

A warrant was issued for Michael Price's arrest, and three days later he was charged with second-degree burglary. During a January 2007 hearing, Price was ordered to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. In August 2007, after Price successfully completed the program, prosecutors dismissed the burglary charges, according to court records. Michael Price is not charged with anything related to Wone's death.

In the conspiracy case, prosecutors do not have to prove who killed Wone or even how or why he was killed. Instead, they must prove that the three men know who killed him and collaborated in covering up the crime.

Kirschner and his team think the burglary is another piece of evidence that the housemates collaborated to cover up the killing.

Prosecutors also plan to present evidence of a confrontation between Michael Price and a homicide detective on the day of Wone's funeral. As mourners and police detectives gathered in a parking lot after the funeral, Price allegedly, in a profanity-laced rage, confronted Detective Gail Russell-Brown with questions about why police were harassing his brother instead of searching for Wone's killer.

The confrontation, prosecutors assert, is evidence of Michael Price's "consciousness of guilt" -- a legal standard of evidence that prosecutors use to show how a person's actions after a crime reveal that person's involvement in the crime. Attorneys for the housemates argue that Price was simply defending his brother. On Friday, Leibovitz ordered prosecutors to present additional evidence of Price's state of mind during his confrontation with the detective before she allows the detective to testify.

The trial has lasted longer than the attorneys and Leibovitz anticipated. Testimony resumes Tuesday, and prosecutors expect to take another week presenting their case before defense attorneys get their turn.

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