Q&A: USAO’s Chief of Homicide

As part of our 2014 Year in Review, we’re speaking with those who shape the criminal justice system in the District. Jeffrey Ragsdale is the chief of the homicide section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. He answered our questions below via email:

What were the most memorable homicide prosecutions of 2014?

All homicides are by definition very tragic and compelling. We do not treat or prosecute cases differently because of who the victim is.

There are some cases that were particularly compelling during 2014:

United States v. Lamont Terry: Terry pled guilty to second-degree murder of Chet Matthews, an off duty postal employee, whom he killed during a botched robbery on Memorial Day 1992 in the Hains Point area of East Potomac Park. This case was unsolved until one of Terry’s accomplices came forward with information two years ago — ironically with the belief he could collect the reward money.

United States v. Robert Givens et al: In this criminal street gang case, defendants Robert Givens, Lester Williams, Marcellus Jackson and Keir Johnson were convicted of conspiracy, murder, other felony assaults, and firearm offenses. The defendants were members of the G Rod Crew, a group that engaged in a violent rivalry with other groups, including the 17th and Euclid Streets Crew. Two members, Johnson and Williams, brazenly committed a murder in broad daylight during a funeral procession of a young woman with family ties to a rival gang.

United States v. Anthony Gray: Gray was convicted of killing Robert McManus, who was a government witness in another murder case committed by other Simple City Crew members. Mr. McManus was shot in July 2000 in the 4800 block of E Street SE.

United States v. Willie Walker and Ricky Donaldson: Walker and Donaldson, members of the LeDroit Park Crew, were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder of Delois Persha in September 2008 in the LeDroit Park area. Ms. Persha had previously been seriously shot by Walker and was prepared to testify against him. Walker was in jail when he conspired with Donaldson to murder Ms. Persha.

United States v. Anthony Hatton, James Harris and Jekwan Smith: Hatton, Harris and Smith, members of the 21st and Maryland Avenue Crew, pled guilty to murders of three rival gang members between 2007 and 2011 in the 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE areas. (Hatton pled guilty to the 2011 murder of Tyrell Fogle, Smth and Harris pled guilty to the 2011 murder of Isaiah Sheffield, and Smith also pled guilty to the 2007 murder of Michael Pearson.

This year saw the 21st and Vietnam case finally come to a close. How does prosecuting a multi-defendant gang case differ from a more typical murder prosecution?

It is generally more time intensive to investigate and prosecute a multi-defendant gang case. Most of these cases utilize information and testimony provided by fellow gang members and it often takes a considerable amount of time and effort to convince them to do so. These cases often do not have many non-involved eyewitnesses, which makes them more challenging.

Last year, US Attorney Machen said there would be a renewed focus on cold cases in 2014. What has come of that effort?

Cold cases continue to be a priority and are prosecuted by our office. Examples are the Terry and Gray cases cited above. They are particularly challenging because of the passage of time and lack of witnesses. However, witnesses often come forward because they are less fearful due to the passage of time and because their circumstances have changed, e.g. they have moved form a particular area or no longer associated with defendant or his associates.

A federal court invalidated DC’s ban on carrying a pistol in public this year. We see a lot of murder cases carry additional weapons charges. How has this ruling affected your approach?

With the exception of carrying a pistol without a license charge, it really has not changed our charging philosophy. Many of our defendant have prior felony charges which prevent them from carrying a firearm and the use of a firearm while committing a murder still includes the while armed enhancement as well as the charge of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.

We’ve seen an enormous range in sentences for homicide cases, from just a few years for some cases to essentially life sentences in others. What do you think about when recommending a sentence (as part of a plea deal), and how do you decide if a sentence is just?

Our pleas are very fact-driven and are made after consideration of the facts involved, the strength of the case and the defendant’s criminal record. No two cases are the same and the plea offers often vary due to these factors.

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