Judge rules not guilty in Robert Wone case

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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Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 11:00 AM

All three of the defendants in the Robert Wone conspiracy trial were found not guilty by a D.C. Superior Court judge on Tuesday.

Judge Lynn Leibovitz acquitted the three housemates from the bench after explaining her verdict for about an hour. Leibovitz said she believed that the three defendants know who killed Wone, but that the prosecution failed to prove that they did. It came down to the reasonable doubt standard, she said.

Washington Post staff writer Keith L. Alexander was online Wednesday, June 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the "case with captivating elements: murder, money, class and sex," according to Alexander.

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Keith Alexander: Good morning everyone. Well, it's been four years since Washington attorney Robert Wone was killed while staying at the home of his friends after working late. No one has been arrested in Wone's murder. The government believes the three men who live in the house know who killed Wone and aren't telling. Yesterday, after a nearly five week trial, a D.C. judge said the government's theories may be true, but the government did not have enough evidence to prove its case. What do you think?

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for answering questions about this complex case.

I want to raise a bit of an uncomfortable topic. In the early stages of the investigation, the media reported that human semen (perhaps his own) was found on the body of Mr. Wone. I did not read anything about it once the trial started. Were the reports accurate? If so, was it raised at the trial, and what were the conclusions?

Thank you.

Keith Alexander: It is indeed a delicate question but a question I have been getting from readers via email and letters for weeks now. Yes, when the men were arrested in 2008 for obstruction of justice and conspiracy, prosecutors said Wone had been sexually assaulted. They based their conclusion on the fact that his own DNA was found on him, well, in his rectum area. Defense attorneys said Wone was never sexually assaulted and produced a medical expert during motions who said the Wone may have discharged the semen as he was dying. The government decided not to pursue the sexual assault theory primarily because this was a conspiracy trial, not a murder or sexual assault trial, so such details would have just distracted a jury from the actual case. So they agreed to leave it out, before the defense requested not to have a jury trial and instead allow the judge to hear the case.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think Judge Leibovitz's decision will help or hurt the Wone family in their $20 million suit against the trio?

Keith Alexander: Good question. It seems the judge took great pains to spell out her thoughts on the men, which weren't too positive. Also, take note, she said that she doesn't believe there was an intruder, she believes the men know who killed Wone and she said she doesn't believe Joseph Price's younger brother, Michael, had anything to do with Wone's death, a theory the prosecution floated. In the civil case, the family is charging that the three men were somehow responsible for Wone's slaying. I'm not sure if her ruling would be admissible in the civil trial, but if it is, it seems it could bolster the Wone's family case.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you aware of 20/20 or Dateline doing an episode on this case? It would seem perfect for their audience.

Keith Alexander: Dateline had a reserved seat in the courtroom during the trial, but I only saw someone in that seat a few times. So I really don't know. Never saw anyone from 20/20.

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Washington, D.C.: Were you able to see the defendants during yesterday's proceedings? How would you characterize their reactions and the general reaction of those in the courtroom?

Keith Alexander: It was extremely quiet in there. Judge Leibovitz had a truly captive audience. Although the defendants did not stand while the judge was issuing her ruling, I was able to see their faces. And actually, their reactions were consistent with their reactions through the entire trial. Victor Zaborsky cried a little. Joseph Price just sat there and actually took a few notes. Dylan Ward just stared at the judge as she was speaking. Some of the friends and family members of the men, from what I could see, showed reserved excitement. Wone's widow began sobbing. The only real sounds I heard came from one or two other reporters around me, much to my surprise, who gasped and commented in disbelief.

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Cave: For those of us who have been living in a cave and who have not been following local crime stories, would you please summarize the details of this case and what it is that makes it so fascinating?

Keith Alexander: Now, I wouldn't say anyone who wasn't familiar with the case was living in a cave. People have lives out there and there's a lot going on these days. Essentially Mr. Wone agreed to stay at the home of the three men after he worked late. He arrived at the house around 10:30 p.m. and was alive until at least 11:08 p.m. when he emailed his wife. Sometime between then and 11:49 when the men called 911, he was stabbed three times in the chest and abdomen. The housemates say no one else was in the house and an unknown intruder came into the house and killed Wone. Police say there was no sign of an intruder and nothing was stolen. Prosecutors also believe Wone had been restrained at some point during the attack and sexually assaulted, although, as I stated earlier, they did not pursue those angles in this trial since it was a conspiracy case and not a murder case. To be sure, prosecutors did change some of their theories during the course of the trial and the judge also disagreed with them so the sexual assault and restraint theories could have been disproven as well had they been brought up.

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Detroit, Mich.: I would hardly call this a vindication of the defendants. The judge made it explicitly clear that she thought they knew who killed Mr. Wone, but couldn't convict them on the basis of the evidence presented. Is that really a victory?

Keith Alexander: I am sure the defense attorneys would argue that the verdict was a victory because their clients avoided conviction and prison.

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Alexandria, Va.: Understanding that our judicial system is not perfect, do you think the verdict could have been different if the defense opted for a jury trial?

Keith Alexander: Woa, that's a great question. As any attorney in the District and they will tell you, jurors in Washington are very practical. They want actual evidence. They want proof, not speculation or theory. Actual proof they can see or hear, even if it comes from a witness. There was nothing or no one that actual proved these men conspired to cover up the murder. That's what the judge was saying in her verdict. The defense believed that at least one juror would find the men guilty, not based on the evidence, but based on their lifestyle or their personal thoughts about the three men. Based on many of the comments I've read from readers about the case, there seems to be some validity to those concerns. Even the judge said the men's reaction to Wone's death was pretty much unfeeling and self-serving, but she put that aside when deciding her verdict. Would a juror with no legal background be able to do the same? I'm not so sure.

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Fairfax, Va.: When did it go from the prosecution believing one of the three committed the murder, to just believing they knew who did it?

Keith Alexander: Probably when they realized they couldn't immediately prove that any of the three men committed the murder. And that was around the time they were arrested in 2008 and charged.

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Washington, D.C.: If the judge believed the men knew who killed Wone, doesn't that mean the prosecutors did their job? Where did her belief come from -- from the evidence the prosecutors presented, right? So if the evidence was good enough to make her believe the men killed Wone, why wasn't it good enough to convict?

Keith Alexander: Great question. The judge is a former prosecutor and the daughter of a New York judge. She knows the law inside and out. It basically came down to, the judge saying, Yes, I believe much of what the prosecution said based on gut. But you can't render a verdict based on gut, it has to be on evidence. black and white, not gray. It really came down to reasonable doubt, literally. This is probably the best case test for that theory. Bottom line, she believes no one else was in that house when Wone was killed and so it stands to reason one of the three men know who killed Wone based on that. But there was no real proof that this belief was true and that any of them planned to cover up the murder.

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Three defendants: Are these three (still) living together and in some committed relationship? Are they employed?

Keith Alexander: The three are still living together and in some type of committed relationship (although it did come out during the trial and resurfaced yesterday in the judge's verdict, that this committed relationship also allowed for outside affairs with others). The law firm where Price worked, Arent Fox, no longer employs him. Not sure about the employment of Ward or Zaborsky.

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The Defense: tried to make us believe that the three men were targeted because they are gay. C'mon! They were suspects because they lived in the house and were there when the murder was committed.

Keith Alexander: That's the job of the defense. And they had a very strong defense team. I covered a case not too long ago in which a 20-year-old man was accused of raping and killing a 75 year old woman. His attorney told the jury that the reason her client's DNA was on the woman was because it was a consensual relationship. The man was convicted.

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Washington, D.C.: First, thank you for your excellent coverage of the Wone trial, Mr. Alexander, I've been following it closely for months.

Now that the trial is over -- are the three housemates free to discuss and say anything they want regarding their own guilt? For example, a tell-all book. I know they can't be tried twice for conspiracy, but the civil suit is now active which may encourage them to remain silent. Then again, they are all broke.

Keith Alexander: Thank you for your comment. Yes, the civil suit is pending so I doubt they would actively put anything out there, but you never know. Also, the murder investigation is still active and will remain so until someone is arrested and charged and/or found guilty. Would you risk making public comments, especially when the prosecution believes you were somehow involved in the murder?

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Macon, Ga.: My comment is this: did the judge confuse "gut" with "circumstantial evidence," of which there was a gracious plenty.

Keith Alexander: Hello Macon, wow this was indeed a story that gripped parts of the nation. I don't believe the judge confused "gut" and "circumstantial evidence." Remember, her definition of circumstantial evidence probably more accurate and most likely, more stringent than the lay persons. Having covered this trial, despite opinions and thought, the government had very very little evidence to prove a conspiracy and cover-up. Often times when prosecutors are able to prove conspiracy, they have a witness who testifies about such a conversation or even jail house recordings of the suspect. There was nothing like that here.

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Crofton, Md.: Do you think the defendants will ever be charged with murder? If so, can they try them separately or must they be tried together?

Keith Alexander: As I wrote in my first story of the trial, I don't think anyone will be charged with murder unless someone confesses to seeing something, knowing something or even doing something.

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Who did it: It seems like the intruder theory is just ridiculous, considering the facts. But why would these three men cover up Wone's death? I know the judge found them not guilty but it is clear that the judge still thought they were covering something up. I thought Wone was their friend -- what could have possibly happened to have changed that overnight?

Keith Alexander: That's a great question and a question that no one seems to be able to answer. Wone and Price had been friends for more than 15 years, since Wone was 18.

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Fairfax, Va.: How do you think the "citizen journalism" of sites like WhoMurderedRobertWone has changed the face of reporting on issues like this?

Keith Alexander: the website. I've been giving this a lot of thought because I knew this question could come up. I have several thoughts on this site. First, these men worked long hours from nearly day one on following every aspect and then some of this case. Very, very impressive. They seemingly sacrificed much of their lives for this case. What this says to me, and should say to others out there, is there is a way to put pressure on police and the government until something is done involving an unsolved case. This seems to be a way to do it. The sight also has a very large and dedicated following who really were engaged about this subject. That's what journalists want!! Journalistically however, the sight was obviously biased at times in their coverage and the editors really believe these men are guilty and weren't ashamed to say so at times. And I guess I was a little surprised that this site considers itself a form of journalism. The editors called themselves media and even the court PR person reserved several seats for the editors with the long-time media outlets. So are we in the era now that bloggers are now journalists? I don't know, that's a Howard Kurtz question.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any remaining options for the prosecution? Different angles? Is the Wone family's civil suit the only remaining, formal action on this?

Keith Alexander: The civil suit is only remaining action pending. The prosecution is still investigating the murder.

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Keith Alexander: Ok folks. Gotta go. I am sorry I was not able to get to all of your questions. But thank you for taking time out of your day to spend with us. Best, Keith L Alexander

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