D.C. judge acquits 3 of Wone slaying coverup, cites reasonable doubt
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
One of the most sensational criminal trials in D.C. history ended Tuesday with the judge acquitting three men of covering up the slaying of Robert Wone -- even though she believes that they know who did it.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz said she thinks that the three defendants made up a story about an intruder breaking in and stabbing the overnight guest at their Northwest Washington home. But in the end, prosecutors had not proved their case, she said, concluding a trial that captivated the region and much of the nation with its most salacious elements: money, class, sex and homicide.
The key to the verdict was the strong distinction between what she might feel in her gut and what was proved beyond a reasonable doubt in her courtroom, the judge said.
"In the ordinary decisions we make in our daily lives, a person who believes something strongly, but without evidentiary support beyond a reasonable doubt, may still be correct in her belief and responsible in her decision-making," Leibovitz said.
"But to convict an accused, a trier of fact must be firmly convinced based on evidentiary certainty."
It took a little more than an hour for Leibovitz to explain her decision after finding Joseph R. Price, 39, Victor J. Zaborsky, 44, and Dylan M. Ward, 40, not guilty of a coverup.
Wone, 32, was stabbed to death Aug. 2, 2006, while he stayed in a guest room at the men's three-story townhouse at 1509 Swann St. NW, near Dupont Circle. The men are in a three-way romantic relationship, which prosecutors saw as cementing their allegiance to each other in the alleged coverup.
Spectators -- including the defendants' parents, who sat in the front row, and members of Wone's family, who sat in the back -- remained silent as Leibovitz explained her position. Some of the half-dozen defense attorneys winked at one another during the judge's remarks as she made points that they believed were in their favor.
When the judge delivered her verdict, Zaborsky cried, but there was no reaction from Ward or Price. Wone's widow, Katherine, who was in the gallery almost every day of the nearly five-week trial, also cried. She was quickly escorted from the courtroom.
Leibovitz was the sole arbiter of the men's guilt because defense attorneys waived the right to a jury trial, fearing that jurors might not be impartial after hearing details of the defendants' relationship. The prosecution consented to the defense's request.
The case is not over, though. Wone's family has a $20 million wrongful-death lawsuit pending against the men. That is a civil case, with different standards of evidence and proof. And it would probably be a jury trial. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for September.
A difficult case
From the beginning, it was a difficult case for the government. Prosecutors acknowledged that they do not know who killed Wone or why, and there was very little physical evidence at the scene. Wone, a prominent lawyer who worked as general counsel for Radio Free Asia, was stabbed three times in the chest and abdomen, and one of the thrusts pierced his heart. He was college friends with Price and had arranged to spend the night at the townhouse rather than commute home to Oakton after working late. Prosecutors initially said Wone had been sexually assaulted.