Prosecution rests in Wone trial; judge to rule Thursday on dismissing charges

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Prosecutors in the Robert Wone conspiracy trial rested their case Wednesday after presenting more than 30 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits over nearly four weeks that focused on something they were not even obligated to prove: who stabbed Wone to death.

From the beginning, this has been the most unusual of cases because no one is charged with killing Wone. But prosecutors tried to prove in D.C. Superior Court that Joseph R. Price, 39, Dylan M. Ward, 40, and Victor J. Zaborsky, 44, who allowed Wone to stay with them on the night of his death, know who killed their friend and conspired to stage the crime scene and cover for the killer.

It boils down to this: Did an intruder kill Wone, as the defendants say, or was it someone the housemates know? Prosecutors say the killer was someone the three men know, probably Price's younger brother.

The housemates, who say they are in a committed three-way romantic relationship, waited 17 minutes before calling police so they could plant the murder weapon, alter the crime scene and scrub Wone's body of blood, prosecutors say.

As soon as Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner, head of the homicide unit, was done presenting that case Wednesday, lawyers for the three defendants said that Kirschner hadn't proved anything. A judge will decide Thursday whether they are right.

She will base her decision on what has transpired in her courtroom over the past several weeks.

Prosecutors had little physical evidence to show the judge. So they built what they hope is a compelling narrative about what happened inside 1509 Swann St. NW and used what little evidence there is to bolster that theory. Along the way, they tried to poke holes in the defense's version of what happened: that Price accidentally left a back door open and that an intruder scaled a seven-foot fence, walked into the house, stabbed Wone three times in the chest as he slept, and then ran out the same door and climbed back over the fence.

Prosecutors called detectives to the stand to testify that there were no signs of a break-in and that nothing was taken. One said that it is almost unheard of that an intruder wouldn't have grabbed a laptop, cellphone or TV. Even Wone's wallet and watch were left near his body.

Wone, 32, a prominent lawyer who lived in Oakton with his wife, Katherine, was a college buddy of Price's and was staying at the million-dollar townhouse in August 2006 after working late at his job as general counsel for Radio Free Asia. Price and Wone had planned an early breakfast meeting the next day.

Prosecutors theorized that Price's brother, Michael, 38, killed Wone. They presented evidence that Michael Price had a drug problem, had a key to the house and knew the alarm code. They called witnesses to say that the housemates had covered for Michael Price when he and a friend broke into the Swann Street townhouse two months after the slaying and stole electronic equipment. Prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge Michael Price with any crimes associated with Wone's killing.

The knife found on the nightstand next to Wone's body, prosecutors argued, was key to their case. They said it was planted and called witnesses who testified that it couldn't have been the murder weapon. It was too long to have inflicted the wounds and did not have any fibers from the T-shirt Wone was wearing when he was killed, the witnesses said.

Prosecutors said that at least one of the roommates went to the kitchen, removed a boning knife from the counter and wiped Wone's blood onto the knife from a cotton towel found near his body to make it look like it was the murder weapon. The real weapon, prosecutors said, was a knife that was missing from a cutlery set Ward kept in his bedroom closet.

But the prosecution's two key witnesses -- a deputy D.C. medical examiner and one of the nation's top forensic experts -- could not rule out the possibility that the knife found at the scene was the murder weapon.

Defense lawyers argued to Judge Lynn Leibovitz on Wednesday that without proof that the knife was planted, the prosecution does not have a case, and they called for Leibovitz to dismiss the charges.

"If the knife was not planted, there's nothing left," said Robert J. Spagnoletti, one of the half-dozen criminal defense lawyers hired by the men.

Prosecutors are relying most on what was not at the crime scene to convince the judge: blood. Medical examiners testified that Wone lost nearly half of his blood. But almost none was found on or near Wone.

"This was not a normal knife attack," Maryland's chief medical examiner, David R. Fowler, testified Wednesday, citing the lack of blood. Fowler said that it was "unusual" that all three stab wounds were the same size and depth and that there was no sign Wone struggled or tried to fight his attacker.

Prosecutors also say the men conspired to lie to police about where they were in the house at the time Wone was killed and what time they found his body. Price, Ward and Zaborsky also collectively concocted the intruder story, prosecutors said.

Although prosecutors pointed out several inconsistencies in statements the men made to police, Spagnoletti argued that there's no proof that any of the defendants knew of the attack until after they found Wone's body.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Carlson Lieber, one of three prosecutors on the case, pointed to other inconsistencies. Lieber said that in a recording of Zaborsky's 911 call, the operator was heard telling Zaborsky to tell Price to use towels to stop the bleeding. But one of the responding paramedics testified that he found Price sitting on the bed next to Wone but that he was not applying any pressure to his friend's wounds or in any type of panic. "If he was a grieving friend, he would have been doing things that would have been consistent with that. He wasn't," Lieber said in court Wednesday.

During the trial, prosecutors tried to portray Price, a former intellectual property lawyer with the District's Arent Fox law firm, as the controller of the three-way relationship who spoke for the three men when police arrived at the scene. Prosecutors played videos of Price's interview with detectives just hours after Wone was killed. Price, often calm and showing little emotion, surfed through his BlackBerry at times.

Leibovitz said she will issue her ruling about dismissing the case Thursday. She could decide to dismiss all, some, or none of the charges and order the defense to move forward. Each of the three men is charged with three counts of conspiracy, obstruction and tampering with evidence, and each faces more than 30 years in prison if convicted.

At the beginning of the trial, the defense team decided not to have its case heard by a jury, making Leibovitz the sole arbiter.

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