Man arrested in taxi robbery freed again over victim’s identification method
By Peter Hermann,
Suspected in a two-day frenzy of taxi holdups in Northeast Washington, Miguel Demonis ricocheted through the District’s criminal-justice system — hunted, arrested and released, then hunted, arrested and released again.
Twice in less than a week, police slapped handcuffs on the 19-year-old. Twice, authorities — first a prosecutor, then a judge — told detectives that they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him.
Demonis is free again, and the U.S. attorney’s office wants him back behind bars. On Tuesday, prosecutors challenged a judge’s ruling that a cabbie’s identification of the suspect, in which he appeared to use the process of elimination during a lineup of photographs, was insufficient to sustain a criminal charge.
Now the investigation into the robberies police once thought closed remains open, and prosecutors must convince a judge that a colleague’s ruling lacked legal merit in order to revive their case.
The odyssey has frustrated taxi drivers, who say it symbolizes dysfunction and indifference for their safety, and Demonis’s aunt, who said that police are unfairly targeting her nephew for crimes he says he didn’t commit.
“He said he didn’t do any of the things they say he did,” said his 74-year-old aunt, Joan P. Wilkins, who raised Demonis since he was 7. “He said they have him for somebody else.”
Neither Demonis nor his attorney could be reached to comment Wednesday.
Wilkins, who said police searched her apartment, described Demonis as “a good child” while admitting that she recently kicked him out of their home for failing to complete his final semester of high school and for keeping friends who were, she called, “the wrong crowd.”
Nathan Price, head of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, said that robberies going unsolved is nothing new.
“We used to joke about it, until it got pathetic,” he said. “We’re on the low end of the totem pole when it comes to the quality and the protection of our lives.”
In court papers, prosecutors insist that they’re after the right man, noting similarities in robberies and attempted robberies on Aug. 29 and 30 in the Rhode Island Avenue corridor in Edgewood, blocks from where Demonis lived with his aunt.
Prosecutors said in court filings that Demonis fits the description in at least four of five attacks, one of which they said also involved a 15-year-old armed with a gun and who is now in custody. The prosecutors called Demonis “a danger to the community.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the case Wednesday. Gwendolyn Crump, a D.C. police spokeswoman, said that police made a legitimate arrest based on a warrant signed by a judge.
Police first arrested Demonis and the teenager after the latest robbery, on Aug. 31. Officers chased them for a few blocks and caught them under a stairwell. Prosecutors later declined to file charges, “pending further investigation.”
The same day, detectives obtained an arrest warrant charging Demonis in an Aug. 29 robbery. A Georgetown Cab driver had said that his cellphone, Bluetooth earpiece and a GPS device were taken by a man who threatened him with a note saying he had a gun.
At the time, Demonis was scheduled to be sentenced for possession of a pellet gun during his January arrest in connection with another cab robbery. He failed to show up for that hearing on Sept. 5, and a judge issued another arrest warrant. He was arrested that night.
A judge fined him $100 for the pellet gun and ordered him detained until his preliminary hearing, which was held Tuesday in D. C. Superior Court. Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin L. Walsh and defense attorney Russell J. Hairston argued over the quality of the cabdriver’s identification, Hairston saying that an identification made by eliminating everyone but his client did not mean that his client was explicitly identified as the robber.
Court documents say that the victim surveyed an array of nine mug shots, pointed to the second one and said: “This guy looks like him. All the rest, I can positively exclude.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Detective Dexter Martin called the dispute one of semantics. The victim, Martin said, according to a transcript, “places his finger on the photograph. He said, ‘This looks like him,’ ” and then put his hand over the other the photographs and said he could exclude them.
But Magistrate Judge Diana Harris Epps said, “I can’t in all good conscious find probable cause the way in which the case was presented.”
The U.S. attorney’s office appealed in Tuesday’s filing, saying that the driver saw Demonis’s face when he climbed into his cab and that the description — age, height, build, complexion and hairstyle — matched the suspect from both robberies in which he was a suspect and in two others committed in the same 48-hour time span.
“Probable cause deals with probabilities and depends on the totality of circumstances,” prosecutors wrote. “There is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the August 29 robbery.”
The decision about whether to pursue the case now lies with the chief judge of the Superior Court, who had not ruled as of Wednesday evening.