Two men charged in the shooting death of a transgender woman in the District were acquitted of a dozen firearms-related charges Wednesday by a jury that declared it was hopelessly deadlocked on numerous other counts, including first-degree murder while armed.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee declared a mistrial on the undecided charges. The U.S. attorney’s office said prosecutors would discuss the case internally before deciding whether put the men on trial again.
During a weeks-long trial, prosecutors presented evidence they said showed Jolanta Little, 28, of Southeast Washington and Montee Tyree Johnson, 23, of Upper Marlboro, Md., fatally shot 22-year-old Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds during a robbery in Northeast Washington.
Johnson and Little were charged with first-degree murder while armed, robbery, conspiracy and other offenses in the July 4, 2016 shooting. The defendants were among four men charged in the case.
Johnson and Little were acquitted of a total of 12 counts of possessing a firearm during a crime of violence, related to several robberies on the night Dodds was killed. The only guilty verdict was against Little for carrying a handgun without a license.
The panel, which has been deliberating since last week, said Wednesday morning that it was unable to reach verdicts on the murder charge against each man and a total of more than a dozen robbery- and assault-related counts against the two.
Lee instructed the jury to continue deliberating. However, in the late afternoon, the jurors returned to the courtroom to say they were hopelessly deadlocked.
It was a challenging case for prosecutors. There was no DNA evidence, and no murder weapon found. The government’s key evidence came from two brothers who admitted to participating in the crimes. Each pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify, telling jurors Little drove the group around to commit robberies and said Johnson fatally shot Dodds.
It was before dawn on July 4, 2016, when the group hatched a plan to “make some moves” — their code for robberies for cash, Cyheme Hall, one of the brothers, testified.
The four men piled into a white Pontiac and drove around parts of Northeast and Northwest Washington scanning the streets, Hall, 23, said. He said they found their first victim on Eastern Avenue, someone who was “dressed as a woman,” but had masculine facial features.
Hall testified that he and Johnson jumped out of the car with their guns and pounced on the victim, thinking she would give up her cash. But Dodds fought back.
Johnson pointed a gun at Dodds’s face, Hall said, and Dodds grabbed the barrel with both hands. Hall said Johnson fired. The men grabbed Dodds’s silver clutch purse and cellphone as she lay bleeding on the sidewalk, Hall said.
“There was nothing in the purse,” he told the jury.
Hall said his group went on to commit another robbery of a group of people that night. Hall’s older brother Shareem, 25, offered similar testimony: In less than two hours during the early morning of July 4, the men had robbed seven people.
Defense attorneys argued the Hall brothers lied on the witness stand in an effort to pin the murder on Johnson and Little in exchange for leniency at the time of their own sentencings. Attorneys for Johnson and Little contended at trial that both men were innocent.
Little, who was allegedly driving the car at the time while wearing a GPS ankle bracelet from a previous carjacking case, had no idea his passengers were committing robberies, his attorney said. Johnson’s lawyers said Johnson was wrongly identified by the Hall brothers.
Prosecutors said the men targeted Dodds and other victims for robbery because they worked as prostitutes and had cash. Prosecutors originally added hate crime enhancements to the charges against Johnson and Little, believing they had evidence to prove the men targeted their victims because they were transgender.
But before the trial ended, prosecutors determined they did not have enough evidence against Johnson to charge him with the hate crime enhancement, so it was dismissed. Judge Lee later determined there was no supporting evidence of a hate crime against Little and dismissed the enhancement over prosecutors’s objections.
The trial took a dramatic turn just days before the jury began deliberations. As attorneys were completing their closing arguments, the defense lawyers received a letter informing them the lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas N. Saunders, had contact with a colleague who was prosecuting a case involving the son of one of the jurors in the Dodds trial.
Defense attorneys argued Saunders, an assistant U.S. attorney, acted inappropriately when he communicated with his colleague. In court, the defense attorneys said they were told Saunders suggested his fellow prosecutor remind the juror there are other options available to prosecutors besides prison, such as probation.
The government has said in court there there was no indication the information ever made it to the juror.