The Murder Of Robert Wone
Criminal Trial and Verdict
Updated by Paul Van Olson
On May 12, 2010, preliminary proceedings in the criminal trial of Joseph R. Price, Victor J. Zaborsky and Dylan M. Ward on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence began with a surprise when all three defendants waived their right to a jury trial of their peers and instead opted for a bench trial under the gavel of D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz. Defense attorneys argued that pretrial publicity given to the case by The Washington Post and the unconventional sexuality of the defendants coupled with the sexual component of the crime would make it difficult to seat an impartial jury.
Prosecution witnesses recounted the receipt of Zaborsky's 911 call, drawing attention to Zaborsky's incongruous question during the call, asking the 911 operator the time during the emergency call. Neighbor William Thomas testified that he heard a scream from the defendants' house, but did not note the time, although his wife had been watching the 11 o'clock news, placing the time of the attack sometime between 11:00 and 11:30, leaving a gap of 15 to 49 minutes between the likely time of the attack and the 911 call. The responding paramedic, Jeff Baker, testified that he found Wone apparently dead at the time of arrival, with a remarkable lack of blood from the three stab wounds, with only a light film of blood over his abdomen as though the wound had been wiped. Baker also testified that there was no evidence anywhere of a towel used to attempt to staunch the wound, as the 911 operator had instructed Zaborsky to do until the paramedics arrived.
The prosecution's case was dealt a blow late in the first week, though, when Lois Goslinoski, the deputy medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Wone, testified that she could not rule out the knife found at the crime scene as the murder weapon. Goslinoski also testified that Wone had lost nearly three-fourths of his blood, and that the wounds Wone suffered would probably have taken around 10 minutes to render him unconscious, making the lack of defensive injuries problematic to any theory of an unknown prowler attacking Wone without premeditation, but Goslinoski's uncertainty about the murder weapon was a major first crack in the prosecution's argument.
The prosecution entered into evidence the defendants' delay in reporting the burglary of their home in October 2006, and their later acknowledgement that Michael Price indeed had also had a key to the home despite having told police in August that only their basement tenant and a contractor had keys to the house in order to support their theory of the defendants' conspiring to protect a killer known to them, but no evidence was introduced placing Michael at the scene of the crime.
When the prosecution rested its case in the third week of June, the defense moved for dismissal of the charges, arguing that the prosecution's inability to exclude the knife found with Wone's body as the murder weapon fatally damaged the prosecution's case of a cover-up by the defendants. On June 17, Leibovitz ruled that the trial would continue, but dismissed charges of tampering with evidence against Ward and Zaborsky, concluding that the prosecution had shown no evidence that the two had touched the knife which increasingly occupied center stage in the proceedings.
The defense brought several witnesses, including a trauma physician otherwise unconnected to the case, who testified that the electrical activity recorded by paramedics showed that Wone had lapsed into unconsciousness less than 12 minutes or so before their arrival. Ward's mother testified that she had kept the knife missing from Ward's knife set which police had proposed as the likely murder weapon, and had still had it with her at the time of the attack, later sending two boning knives to D.C. investigators, since she could not recall which had originally belonged to the set in question. Farzad Najam, a heart surgeon at George Washington University Hospital also testified that one of the stab wounds Wone suffered would have been lethal within seconds, rebutting Goslinoski's estimate of the severity of the wounds, and that most of Wone's bleeding would have been internal, helping to account for the lack of blood at the scene. Closing arguments were made on June 24, and the case was turned over to Leibovitz for her judgment.
On Tuesday, June 29, 2010, Leibovitz handed down her ruling, acquitting all three defendants of all the remaining charges brought against them. Leibovitz ruled that the prosecution had been unable to provide proof beyond reasonable doubt of the existence of either a cover-up or a conspiracy, even though the "suspicious and even damning circumstances" of the crime cast the defendants' actions in a most unfavorable light.
"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 ruled.
The $20 million civil suit brought against the housemates by Wone's family for wrongful death is pending, and the police investigation into Wone's murder remains open.