News & Politics

Crumbling Case

As the first week of the trial in the Robert Wone murder case closes, the prosecution suffers hits.




After the first week in the trial of three men accused of misleading police in the murder of Robert Wone, many clues point to weakness in the prosecution’s case. Just an educated guess, but I say Joe Price, Victor Zaborsky, and Dylan Ward are likely to beat the raps of tampering with evidence, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.

Which could mean there will be no justice in this tragic murder. On Friday, the fourth day of a trial that could last more than a month, the government’s case lost two of its pillars. It was a weak edifice even before the day’s damaging testimony.

In Friday’s testimony, the government lost the knife-tampering piece of the case. And its contention that someone cleaned Robert Wone’s body also took a hit.

Wone is the Asian-American lawyer who went to spend the night at his friend Joe Price’s Dupont Circle row house on August 2, 2006. He arrived at 10:30; 90 minutes later he was dead from three stab wounds. His body was neatly laid on a second-floor sofa bed with the sheet turned down at a 45 degree angle. There was little blood on his body or on the bed.

When the cops arrived, the three men with him in the house were freshly showered and dressed in white robes. They say an intruder scaled their rear wall, entered the home, walked up two flights of stairs and down a hallway, stabbed Wone, and left — without taking anything of value, and without disturbing their slumber.

That scenario is preposterous. But the government has no hard evidence to the contrary. No witnesses. No forensic evidence. No confession. The government’s case is built on air; it hopes that Lynn Liebovitz — the judge who is also the jury in this case — will convict on the logic that the three men’s explanation is hard to believe. But the government has little to contradict it.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution was in trouble when the case opened Monday. The trouble deepened on Friday.

Chief prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, in his charging affidavit and his opening statement, asserted that the knife police found beside the sofa bed was not the murder weapon. He suggests that someone substituted a kitchen knife for the real weapon. Thus the tampering charge. Kirschner relied on the analysis of Lois Goslinoski, the DC medical examiner who performed the autopsy.

At one point Friday afternoon defense attorney David Schertler held up two knives — the one found next to the bed and the one the government says fits the wounds that killed Wone.

“Can you tell us which knife would have caused the injuries to Mr. Wone?” Schertler asked.

“I cannot identify the specific knife,” Goslinoski testified.

Poof. Knife-tampering looks weak.

Goslinoski also weakened the government’s theory that someone washed Wone’s body. With three stab wounds to the heart, why was there no blood in the room, on the bed, on his body? Someone must have washed him off. Really?

Under questioning by the three defense attorneys — Schertler for Ward, Tom Connolly for Zaborsky, and Bernie Grimm for Joe Price — Lois Goslinoski testified that large quantities of blood could have wound up in Wone’s body from internal hemorrhaging. In other words, the government’s chief witness supported the defense’s position.

Bernie Grimm didn’t help the defense, though. A celebrity attorney who occasionally shows up on TV, Grimm could barely hold back his belligerent side as he questioned Goslinoski. He scowled, he badgered, he asked questions over and over if she didn’t give the response he desired.

Grimm became such a bully with Goslinoski that Judge Liebovitz intervened.

“I don’t think that’s a question you need to ask her,” the judge said at one point.

Grimm’s questioning rambled so off course that Liebovitz had to school him on the basics. “Do I need to know what you’re talking about right now?” she asked. “Because I sure don’t.”

In a case about a grim tragedy, Liebovitz is reliably delightful in running the trial. With deft touches of levity and logic, she’s worth watching.

Robert Wone’s widow, Kathy, sat through detailed testimony about her husband’s demise. The lawyers elicited meticulous answers from Goslinoski about the angle of the knife wounds, which parts of Wone’s heart were pierced, where his blood went, whether he was conscious and for how long, why there were no signs that he fought the attack.

How could Kathy Wone endure the graphic testimony?

“It’s complicated,” she told me.

The facts of the case are confounding; the ones presented by the three housemates appear to be fiction, even to neighbors.

Nina Miller, who lives two doors down from 1509 Swann Street, where the murder occurred, sat down with me in the hallway outside Courtroom 310 in DC Superior Court. From her roof she can see into the patio of 1509. No way, she said, could someone see that the back door was open, scale the wall, and make it in and out, especially at night.

“It’s extremely improbable,” she said. “Really hard to believe.”

But unless the government can give Judge Liebovitz something she can believe that contradicts their intruder story, the three men who might know how and why Robert Wone died will go free.

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