News & Politics

Wone Next?

The conspiracy trial is over, but the legal fight for restitution and the truth is not

The initial criminal case ended yesterday with DC Superior Court judge Lynn Leibovitz’s verdicts of not guilty for the three men charged with covering up Wone’s murder. The judge weighed the evidence against the trio and decided the government hadn’t presented enough facts to convince her, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the three had conspired to thwart the investigation of the crime.

But the seeds of the civil case pending against the three defendants—Joe Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward—are sown throughout Leibovitz’s opinion. The literate and readable opinion is as confounding as the case itself: Leibovitz builds a strong case against the defendants, but she exonerates them.

Wone, a 32-year-old attorney, was stabbed to death in a Dupont Circle rowhouse on August 2, 2006. He arrived at 10:30 pm to sleep over after working late. He was dead from three stab wounds 90 minutes later. Price, Zaborsky, and Ward lived together there, and all three were home at the time. Cops and prosecutors could charge neither them nor anyone else with murder. Obstruction and tampering were there only possible charges.

Judge Leibovitz’s opinion is well worth a read. The judge—the defendants chose not to have a jury trial—dismissed the defendants’ story that an “intruder” killed Wone:

“As an initial matter,” she wrote, “I am persuaded by the trial evidence in its totality, and I find, that the murder of Robert Wone was not committed by an intruder unknown to the defendants.”

So the defendants knew the killer, according to the judge. But why didn’t she determine they were guilty? Because, as she so clearly wrote, the government failed to present enough facts in the form of solid evidence to allow her to convict.

But Leibovitz pointed out plenty of evidence to support charges that will be the subject of the impending civil suit against the three defendants. Robert Wone’s widow, Katherine Wone, will be represented by the law firm Covington & Burling. The suit seeks $20 million in damages for wrongful death.

Lawyers for Covington were present throughout the five-week criminal trial. The day the defense and government gave their closing arguments, lead Covington attorney Benjamin Razi and his associate, Dan Suleiman, flanked Kathy Wone in the fourth row. Razi has been involved in the case since the first days following Wone’s demise.

Which brings us to Eric Holder. The US attorney general was in Afghanistan yesterday when Leibovitz rendered her decision, but he has been a presence in the Wone case since its tragic start. Robert Wone had been an associate at Covington, one of the most powerful and prestigious firms in Washington. Holder was a partner at the firm when Wone was killed; he immediately spoke with Kathy Wone and offered the firm’s services for free. A year after the murder, he held a press conference in an attempt to move the investigation along.

When President Barack Obama appointed Holder to run the Justice Department in 2008, Holder became the boss of the prosecutors arguing the case. Back when Holder was US Attorney for DC—from 1993 to 1997—he hired lead prosecutor Glenn Kirschner. While Holder was the District’s top federal prosecutor, Lynn Leibovitz was one of his assistant prosecutors. The same is true for David Schertler, who defended Dylan Ward in the criminal case.

The Justice Department says Holder has had no direct involvement in the current criminal case. He has steered clear of the matter and will play no personal role in the coming civil case while he is in the government. But his pivotal role in launching the civil case can’t help but animate the proceeding, which promises to delve deeper into the facts of the Wone murder.

In the civil case, Wone’s lawyers will not have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. They simply have to convince a jury that the three men have not told the whole truth, that they might have messed with the crime scene, that they might have known the killer—or indeed have wielded the knife.

In fact, Judge Leibovitz in her opinion found that Joe Price probably pulled the knife from Wone’s chest. That did not prove tampering to her, but to a jury it might prove a material and insidious connection.

In a criminal trial, the three defendants could choose not to testify, as they did in this one; in a civil trial, Covington attorneys could call them to the stand, and they would have to decline to testify under protection of the Constitution. That in itself can seem incriminating.

After the judge’s ruling, Ben Razi was asked when he might begin the civil case. “Now,” he responded. The case could begin in court this fall.

But the criminal side of this tragedy might not be over, either. The government hasn’t charged anyone with murder—yet.

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