Lawyers defending Arent Fox partner Joseph Price and two friends in a wrongful death lawsuit notched a victory in D.C. Superior Court yesterday when a judge put the suit on hold while related criminal charges move forward.
Lawyers for Price, his domestic partner Victor Zaborsky, and their roommate Dylan Ward argued that the wrongful death suit should be stayed because allowing it to proceed would interfere with the criminal case. “Every pleading, every document, and every shred of evidence compelled from the defendants in the civil action might serve to reveal their defense strategy in the criminal action,” Price’s lawyer in the civil case, Craig Roswell of Niles, Barton & Wilmer, said.
Price (pictured at left), Zaborsky, and Ward are charged with conspiracy, evidence tampering, and obstruction stemming from the fatal stabbing of D.C. attorney Robert Wone in August 2006. Wone’s family, represented pro bono by Covington & Burling and Regan, Zambri & Long, filed a $20 million wrongful death action last year against Price, Zaborsky, and Ward. Wone, general counsel for Radio Free Asia, was killed in the home belonging to Price and Zaborsky. Police say Wone was restrained and sexually assaulted.
Covington partner Benjamin Razi argued against a blanket stay in the civil case, saying that a delay increases the chances of that memories will fade and evidence could be destroyed. Wone’s widow has retained a forensic expert who should be permitted to review evidence that the criminal defense lawyers have access to, Razi said.
Superior Court Judge Brook Hedge had scheduled a status conference in the civil case for this morning. But Hedge cancelled it after issuing an order yesterday staying the civil case. Hedge said that since opposing counsel in the civil action will need discovery from the government's prosecution team, “there is a public interest in the criminal prosecution proceeding without interference through discovery.”
“While recognizing the competing interests at issue, the defendants’ have an exceedingly compelling interest in preserving their constitutional rights which outweighs the prejudice asserted by the plaintiff in this case,” Hedge wrote in a two-page order.
Hedge said the stay extends through the criminal court case but does not include appeals and post-judgment motions. “This way a fair balance can be struck among the competing interests of the plaintiff, the public interest, and the defendant’s constitutional rights,” the judge wrote.
Razi said in a statement to Legal Times: "Robert Wone's family and many friends will continue to monitor very closely the criminal proceedings against Joe Price, Victor Zaborsky, and Dylan Ward. The Wone family will be prepared to litigate vigorously its civil claims against these men as soon as the stay is lifted."
In recent court papers, Razi said Price, Zaborsky, and Ward want to push off the civil case to avoid a “day of reckoning.” Price’s lawyer, Roswell, took issue with the declaration. “The defendants face criminal prosecution for felony charges that carry a maximum possible sentence of more than 30 years,” Roswell wrote in court papers. “They do not seek to avoid the ‘day of reckoning’ that plaintiff presumptuously implies can only be met in this civil litigation.”
Hedge yesterday also denied a request by the Wone family lawyers to obtain a subpoena compelling Verizon, in New York City, to release e-mail and phone records for Price, Zaborsky, and Ward. The plaintiff’s lawyers had asked Hedge to issue a commission asking the Supreme Court of New York, New York County, to issue a subpoena to Verizon to release the records. Hedge did not elaborate on her reasons for denying the motion.
Lawyers for the Wone family say the records—for the period between July 1, 2006, and Aug. 31, 2006—may provide “state of mind” evidence and reveal what Price, Zaborsky, and Ward were doing before and after the Wone homicide. Price, Zaborsky, and Ward have denied any involvement in the murder, according to D.C. police reports.