Ending With a Bang

The Wone trial draws closer to an end, but no nearer to answers

by Doug Johnson
Published on June 17, 2010, 5:33pm | Comments

The prosecution in the Robert Wone conspiracy trial ended on a strong note this week, even as the judge in the case awarded the defense a partial victory.

Robert Wone
Robert Wone
(File photo) 

Four weeks in, the trial is as notable for what's not being discussed as what is: allegations of drug use and sexual torture, bizarre inconsistencies in the crime scene tied with three sets of suspiciously similar statements, an autopsy that presented puzzling and at times disturbing findings, and an "intruder theory" offered by the defendants that -- in their own statements -- they admitted seemed far-fetched.

And hanging over it all is the still-unsolved murder of Wone one summer's night in D.C. nearly four years ago.

Three gay men -- Victor Zaborsky, Dylan Ward and Joseph Price -- stand accused of conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice in the murder investigation of their friend, Robert Wone.

Wone was found stabbed three times in the defendant's shared home at 1509 Swann Street on August 2nd, 2006. All three have denied any knowledge of what happened that night, saying an unknown and unseen intruder must have committed the crime despite any evidence of forced entry.

Initially, the threesome were considered witnesses by the MPD. However within hours of Wone's murder, detectives began to notice what seemed to be glaring inconsistencies with the crime scene -- such as a near absence of any blood -- and began to consider the housemates as possible suspects.

Despite suspicions, no one has ever been charged in Wone's murder. But that hasn't kept this trial from feeling like "a murder trial that's not a murder trial," in the words of one observer. Even the judge, Lynn Leibovitz, and several of the defense counsel have slipped up once or twice, referring variously to "the murder trial" before quickly correcting themselves.

In presenting its case in chief, the prosecution has sought to portray the three as knowing who committed the murder, and conspiring to protect that person's (or persons') identity. Opening statements went even further, implicating Price's younger brother, Michael.

With dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, prosecutors Glenn Kirschner, Patrick Martin and Rachel Carlson Lieber have sought to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Robert's body was cleaned of blood, the murder weapon replaced with a dummy knife, and a false story manufactured by the housemates to throw police off track.

Yet just a few months ago the government was aiming at much broader charges: that Robert was physically or chemically restrained and sexually assaulted, that the crime scene itself was cleaned of blood and incriminating evidence whisked away, and that Wone may have been moved after his death, among other charges.

None of these, however, are in play, due to an intense defense effort -- led by prominent D.C. attorneys Thomas Connolly, David Schertler, Bernie Grimm and Robert Spagnoletti -- to remove charges and evidence as inflammatory, irrelevant or just speculative.

What's left has been in moments a rather dry and lawyerly trial centered much more around the finest points of complicated legal theory and less about Wone himself.

In resting its case, the prosecution aimed to accomplish two things: First, show that the threesome, joined by Michael Price, have demonstrated a state of mind to keep evidence from the police (as when they delayed reporting Michael's burglary of their home) and, second, that crime scene inconsistencies -- such as the absence of external blood, the lack of defensive wounds on Wone, and gaps in the timeline of when the crime was reported -- prove beyond reasonable doubt that the three conspired to tamper with evidence, and thus obstruct justice.

Unlike many Felony 1 trials, there is no jury in this case, and Leibovitz will be acting both as the finder of law and of fact. Already she has handed the defendants two limited victories this week, as she struck some charges of evidence tampering from Ward and Zaborsky. If found guilty of the remaining charges, the two face up to 35 years in prison; Price faces a possible 38 years.

Longtime court observers have all commented on the complexity of the case, and the open-ended questions as to what actually happened that night. And without a serious new break in the case, it's very possible those questions will never be answered, and no one will be charged in the murder.

Whatever the outcome, Robert Wone's widow, Kathy Wone, has filed a $20 million wrongful death civil suit against the three that can begin once a verdict is reached in the criminal trial.

Possibly cold comfort in the wake of the murder trial that wasn't.