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In one hour, Arlington jury acquits man accused of murder-for-hire

James Christopher Johnson was accused of murder-for-hire in 1998 death of Andrea Cincotta, but a jury didn’t buy it

Andrea Cincotta at the Arlington Central Library in 1985. She was found slain in her apartment in August 1998. (Family Photo/Kevin Cincotta)

An Arlington County jury Tuesday deliberated for only one hour before finding a 60-year-old man not guilty of hiring a violent felon to murder his fiancee, Andrea Cincotta, in her apartment in 1998.

Three jurors said afterward that they questioned why Arlington prosecutors brought the case against James Christopher Johnson. They said that an early informal poll was virtually unanimous for acquittal and that they spent most of the next hour discussing any possible objections before revealing their verdict.

Johnson said he was relieved, having been targeted by Arlington police for 24 years after discovering his fiancee’s body in their bedroom closet. He also said he felt bad for the victim’s son, Kevin Cincotta, who had pushed Arlington police and prosecutors for two decades to solve his mother’s slaying.

Johnson and Kevin Cincotta had been friends until 2018, when a prisoner serving life without parole for rape and attempted murder volunteered that he had strangled Andrea Cincotta, a 52-year-old librarian, and that Johnson had hired him to do so.

She gave a man a computer. Police say her fiance hired him to kill her.

The prisoner was Bobby Joe Leonard, 54, and he described to the jury in graphic detail how he had choked Cincotta to death, placed her body in a tub of water to ensure she wasn’t breathing and then dragged her into the master bedroom closet. “That’s how I left her,” he said when prosecutors showed him a crime scene photo.

And Leonard added a second part to the story: that he had received a call from an older White man, whom he believed to be Cincotta’s boyfriend, some days before the killing, offering him $5,000 to commit murder.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti decided to present the case to a special grand jury in 2021, more than two decades after the crime. The panel indicted Leonard for first-degree murder and Johnson for murder for hire. Leonard pleaded guilty to the murder charge in July.

“Serving victims means that you don’t run away from hard cases,” Dehghani-Tafti said after the acquittal.

Defense attorney Manuel Leiva criticized Dehghani-Tafti for being a progressive prosecutor who “never should have authorized this case to go to trial.” Dehghani-Tafti responded that “being a reform prosecutor also doesn’t mean you run away from hard cases.” She noted that as a former Innocence Project lawyer, “we made sure that nothing was hidden from the defense, we made sure we were very transparent about the evidence we had. We made it a fair fight, and that’s the difference with a reform prosecutor.”

Kevin Cincotta said in a statement, “I’m saddened and disappointed by today’s verdict, but I accept the outcome.” He thanked the police and prosecutors for “the courage to take on this compelling but difficult case … I am grateful that this trial gave us many of the answers we have been seeking for many years.”

Johnson and Kevin Cincotta told Arlington police in 1998 that Andrea Cincotta had given her computer away to a man working around their Colonial Village apartment complex on North Rhodes Street — a man they knew only as “the computer guy.” Arlington police soon identified the computer guy as Leonard and located him days after the slaying in jail in Philadelphia, where he was held after choking and beating his wife.

The police took Leonard’s DNA and fingerprints but did not search his home or obtain any phone records from him, evidence showed. Leonard testified that he cleaned up the crime scene, and no traces of him were found in the apartment Andrea Cincotta had shared with Johnson for seven years.

Instead, Arlington homicide detectives focused on Johnson, interrogating him for 28 hours over three days immediately after Johnson had discovered Andrea Cincotta’s body. Video of some of the interrogation showed Johnson repeatedly denying any role in Cincotta’s death. But eventually, he described a “dream vision,” in which he said he might have knocked Cincotta into a desk, inflicting a fatal head wound. An autopsy showed Cincotta was choked to death.

Johnson did not testify in the trial.

He said he had a ‘vision’ of his fiancee’s death. It wasn’t what it seemed.

“We could see the possibility that he could have done it,” jury foreman Chen Ling said. “But the probability wasn’t enough.” He said Leonard’s testimony was “the only thing the prosecution really had. There were too many other possibilities. We did not get beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A year after Leonard killed Andrea Cincotta, he raped and strangled a 13-year-old teen in Fairfax, but she survived. In 2000, Leonard was convicted of rape and attempted murder and sentenced to life without parole.

In 2018, Arlington cold-case homicide detective Rosa Ortiz went to visit Leonard at Wallens Ridge State Prison, where he told Ortiz he would provide a full statement if Arlington agreed not to seek the death penalty. Then-Arlington prosecutor Theo Stamos agreed, and Leonard told the story about receiving a call from a man he believed to be Cincotta’s boyfriend in 1998. In Leonard’s telling, the man said he knew of Leonard’s criminal background and asked if he would kill Andrea Cincotta for $5,000. Leonard said that he recognized Johnson’s voice from a previous phone call with Andrea Cincotta and that caller ID showed the same phone number.

Leonard’s ex-wife testified that they did not have caller ID in 1998. And twice in 2018, undercover Arlington police officers visited Johnson, posing as Leonard’s family members, and demanded money. “I don’t owe Bobby Joe Leonard anything,” Johnson said. A recorded lunch between Johnson and Kevin Cincotta also did not elicit any admissions of guilt.

Her fiance said he found her body 23 years ago. Now police say he hired another man to kill her.

Then, as he sat in a holding cell waiting to testify last month, Leonard made a new demand: He wanted prosecutors to advocate for his move from maximum-security Wallens Ridge to a lower-security prison, which he said had already been approved but involved a two-year wait. Dehghani-Tafti approved the deal, though prosecutor Abhi Mehta said in his closing argument that that could have easily been ignored by state prison officials.

“This prosecution is a 24-year-old tangled web of lies,” defense attorney Frank Salvato said in his closing argument.

Salvato told the jury that it was difficult to take Johnson “literally from my hands into your hands at this moment. Please take care of him. Please find him not guilty.” Johnson’s wife, Ginnie, doubled over in tears, and when the jury left the room, she erupted in sobs. Johnson, also weeping, walked into the audience and embraced her.

Juror Dustin Colson Leaning said the jury started with an informal poll on scraps of paper and “it came back in favor of not guilty.” One person sought to at least discuss the issues, which the jurors did, he said.

Ling, the jury foreman, said: “Leonard, while a serial liar, still had a decent amount of benefit of the doubt” from the jury, but he “was the only thing the prosecution really had.”