By Jeff Jeffrey and Mike Scarcella
Judge Lynn Leibovitz spent more than an hour reading aloud her 38-page opinion in D.C. Superior Court today.
In finding Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward not guilty on all counts, Leibovitz said that, while prosecutors had provided “powerful” evidence suggesting that one of the three housemates either stabbed Washington attorney Robert Wone or knows who did, the government failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they intended to disrupt the investigation into Wone’s death.
The judge’s verdict marks the conclusion of the criminal case that has transfixed Washington for the past four years.
The three men faced charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Price also faced a charge of tampering with evidence. Leibovitz dismissed the tampering charge against Zaborsky and Ward on June 17, saying there was no evidence that they touched the knife or the victim, the evidence in question on the tampering count. Nobody has been charged with Wone’s murder.
The judge told a packed courtroom today that it is “very probable that the government’s theory is correct—that, even if the defendants did not participate in the murder, some or all of them knew enough about the circumstances of it to provide helpful information to law enforcement and have chosen to withhold that information for reasons of their own.” But, as Leibovitz pointed out, “probable” is not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Without more evidence, the judge said, she was unable to hold the defendants accountable for covering up the August 2006 homicide. The defendants have maintained since the murder that an unknown intruder was responsible.
“My focus on the difference between ‘moral certainty’ and ‘evidentiary certainty’ in this case is probably cold comfort to those who loved Robert Wone and wish for some measure of peace or justice, and I am extremely sorry for this,” Leibovitz said. “I believe, however, that the reasonable doubt standard is essential to maintaining our criminal justice system as the fair and just system we wish it to be.”
Leibovitz said that she was unable to conclude, “with the high level of certainty required by the reasonable doubt standard, that any particular one of the defendants was not the odd man out” in the alleged conspiracy.
“Despite the many suspicious and even damning circumstances, despite the implausibility of the intruder story, and despite the discordant and inappropriate demeanor and conduct of the defendants, I am constrained to conclude that the government has not eliminated, beyond a reasonable doubt, the real possibility created by what I have termed the ‘math problem’ in this case,” Leibovitz read from her opinion.
As the judge worked her way through each of the prosecution’s key points regarding evidence found at the scene, the defendants’ statements to investigators and friends, and the timing of events on the night of the murder, Price, Zaborsky and Ward sat mainly stone-faced. But Zaborsky’s face tightened with emotion as Leibovitz described Wone’s body as “pulseless, unresponsive, pale and cold to the touch” when paramedics arrived on the scene.
As Leibovitz announced that the government had failed to prove its case against the three men, Price, Zaborsky and Ward appeared to breathe a sigh of relief, although their faces remained fixed. They left the courthouse right after the verdict and did not respond to requests for comment.
Katherine Wone, the widow, maintained her composure throughout most of the morning. But as the verdict was read, she quietly broke down and began to weep. She rushed from the courtroom immediately after Leibovitz pronounced the defendants not guilty.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Bernard Grimm, a Cozen O’Connor partner representing Price, said, “The standard is beyond a reasonable doubt. The court began its statement this morning with that standard. That’s the system of justice that we live in. And other countries would die to have that system.”
The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner, called the judgment thoughtful and well-reasoned. He said, “We respect and accept the judge’s verdict. I think everybody who was involved in this case—from the terrific homicide detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department, the MPD evidence technicians, the patrol officers who testified—everybody knew this was a challenging investigation and prosecution. Our hearts go out to Robert’s family.”
Kirschner said prosecutors hope “further evidence continues to come to light” in the homicide investigation. “We will remain hard at work and committed to trying to bring justice to the family of Robert Wone for whoever it was who killed Robert.”
David Schertler, Robert Spagnoletti and Veronica Jennings of Schertler & Onorato, who represented Ward, later released the following statement: “On behalf of Dylan Ward, we are extremely gratified by Judge Leibovitz’s verdicts of not guilty on all counts as to all three defendants. As we have said since the murder of Mr. Wone, Mr. Ward is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in this matter. Mr. Ward also continues to express his deepest sympathies to the family of Robert Wone for their tragic loss and hopes that the person who committed this crime will some day be brought to justice.”