Friends and Family UPDATED 9:30
Tara Ragone, longtime William and Mary friend of both Robert and Joe Price, wrapped up her testimony and cross this afternoon.
She recalled a fond friendship between the three and that she was always warm and comfortable with Price even though they had not maintained very close contact after school, the occasional Christmas card or email sufficed. “Robert was the glue that kept the crowd together,” she said.
During AUSA Glenn Kirschner’s direct, she said, “I still care about Joe,” responding to a question whether she got emotional looking at him in the courtroom.
She met his brother Michael only once, at a New Year’s day brunch in either 1997 or 1998, but she was well aware of his troubles. Joe shared with Ragone that he was helping his brother with medical treatment, career guidance, and financial support.
Joe confided to her the stress that caused, “Joe was a caring brother, dedicated and loyal, but he was frustrated that he had to support himself, pay off his student loans and also take care of Michael.”
Ragone only met Dylan Ward once, at Robert’s viewing. Price introduced the two of them by simply saying, “This is Dylan.” Judge Lynn Leibovitz cautioned Ragone, a “fast talker,” about speaking too quickly for the court reporter to keep up. “You’re a lawyer, be responsive. Avoid giving your impressions unless asked for.”
Ragone recalled her first phone call with Price after the murder, on the Sunday following. She was surprised by the call and did not expect it in the wake of the tragedy. She and Price talked a little about what happened that night.
Hesitiant to probe, she said:
“I was more of a listener and was touched by his call. Joe walked through what he chose to share…I recall him saying Robert arrived after work, they spent some time in the kitchen, drank water and that is was late.”
Price shared details about the layout of 1509 and that he and Zaborsky were on the 3rd floor. Ragone said Price told her he heard the chime and woke up thinking it was Sarah Morgan. He then heard “low guttural moans” and went downstairs, thinking the sound may have been Sarah running into Robert downstairs.
It was at this point, she told Kirschner of an alarming statement she made to Price on the phone and which she later regretted. “Oh my God! You must’ve been covered in Robert’s blood!” Pressed by the prosecutor, Ragone’s recollections were cloudy and she could not say with certainty exactly what prompted that from her. On the phone, she said she immediately apologized to Price and felt guilty for being so matter-of-fact. “That’s OK,” he replied.
On the call, Price also shared his frustrations with the nascent MPD investigation. He told Ragone he didn’t think the police were processing the crime scene properly: door knobs and glasses in the kitchen were being touched without gloves. Price also thought that the stop at 7-11 on the way to the VCB was insensitive and that he was being ignored by the police. [Ed. Note: Detective Jeffrey Folts maye have a different recollection of that ride].
Ragone’s next call with Price was almost two weeks later, on August 18; he had called her again. She had been reading the news coverage of the murder with the early hints/leaks that the MPD thought the crime scene was tampered with. She said to Price, “I hate that I have the questions I’m having. If the scene was tampered with, I’d have a real problem, Joe.” As mentioned earlier, Price’s response was, “There’s a big difference between tampering and wiping away some blood, freaking out about a crime scene.” Kirschner was now done with his direct.
Bernie Grimm’s cross centered on email traffic she had with Price and other members of the W&M inner circle. Grimm asked Ragone about “..hundreds of emails” between them. Ragone said there were only 20 or so that were with Price directly, the others were part of larger email chains they were both cc’d on. Asked if Ragone knew Price well, she replied, “That’s the Joe I knew.”
Quizzed about her reading habits on the murder, Grimm asked if she subscribed to google alerts, had read all the news articles written about the murder…and if she read “…the blog.” She said she yes but had not read all of the news articles. A number of Ragone’s emails found their way to the prosecution team. She said she did not forward them at the government’s request.
Schertler’s cross focused on a particular email chain that originated on August 4. Included among the addressees was Michelle Kang, a friend and the woman who first told Ragone about the murder. In that chain was a note from Ragone that mentioned that a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter had called to ask who the other occupants of the house were.
She forwarded that particular email to Price. He responded back saying, “Thanks for the wishes, but we prefer not to be named in the press.” Ragone’s response was heartfelt and lawyerly, “Please, please give them (Ward and Zaborsky) hugs for us. When and if you want to talk (I’ll be here). I’m glad you have attorneys, police with no leads can twist things. Protect yourself.”
Connolly’s cross amounted to a single question. What was it Price said that made you respond to him with the remark about him being covered in Robert’s blood? What led her to believe that Price had blood on him? Maybe that he was staunching Robert’s wounds he offered. She again fell back on cloudy recollections and could not say with any certainty.
It took Kirschner’s redirect to get Ragone to recall the “gist” of what Price said on that August 4 call, “he said he removed the knife from Robert’s chest,” she said.
Asked about her emails that were forwarded to the government, Ragone said they were sent at the request of Robert’s friend Jason Torchinsky and again in responding to a law enforcement questioning. She told Kirchner that the government never asked her to be a plant, to try and get information from Price. Kirschner wrapped by asking Ragone what else she read about the case and trial. Ragone said she’s read motions, including one from the defense team that was sent to her by Lisa Goddard. Ragone said nothing she has read has influenced her testimony in any way, “Absolutely not.” She was excused from the stand and spent the remainder of the day in the audience taking in the arguments and testimony.
The next half hour was spent with Robert Spagnoletti pleading with Judge Leibovitz on the unfairness of the government’s change in course, which would allow 100% of the defendants’ statements to be admitted for the truth. He and the judge went back and forth in a very spirited and highly technical discussion. Spagnoletti said the change was unfair and the defendants were prejudiced by this move. Leibovitz reminded Spagnoletti about his team’s mid-course correction, that of waiving the jury trial. Spagnoletti complained that the government never said why they made the change and that they should do so for the record.
Leibovitz told Spagnoletti that the defense’s severance motions were based on the jury’s inability to sort out which statements came in for the truth and not. “Why is it you’re prejudiced now? (A jury trial is) “….just not where we are… the government based their decision on your move to waive. I reject that argument. Get another one. In their opening statements, the government said they may do things differently. The government has the right to ask that I reconsider rulings.”
Leibovitz pressed Spagnoletti on just exactly how the defendants were being prejudiced by the government’s strategic decisions: severance, the jury waiver or on cross? She gave in a little and said that at some point the government still must tell her what to credit and what not to. She also allowed the defense time to go over the trial transcripts and that if it’s a question of needing a witness recall, “that’s a prejudice that can be cured.” Expecting motions to aquit, Leibovitz warned both sides they have some writing assignments ahead of them.
Done with Spagnoletti, Leibovitz said, “I take serious the delay (this has caused)… I’ll carefully go through the evidence as I must, and I will distinguish.” Grimm took a shot; the jury trial was waived based on their inability to cipher based on the government’s (previous) representation of how statements were coming in. Leibovitz brushed him back saying that his client is “…getting a better trial (now)” and there’s no burden on a jury to balance truth or not. “What he (Price) gave up (a jury trial) would’ve been completely confusing and unmanageable. It’s best that the Court siphon.” For the record, Tom Connolly rose to echo his colleagues’ concerns.
At 4:00pm, MPD Detetive Bryan Waid was sworn in. His homicide unit was assigned to the case and AUSA Patrick Martin managed the direct. The prosecutor began the familiar march through credentials, Waid’s arrival on the scene at 1:00am, and his observations of what he saw at 1509. Told by police colleagues that this was a case of a reported burglar entering the back door and grabbing a kitchen knife as a murder weapon, Waid canvassed the house inside and out. He found no signs of forced entry anywhere. Nothing in the house appeared to be disturbed and that was the same for the patio and back yard.
Responding to Martin about what he saw in the guestroom, Waid said he saw no evidence of a ‘cast-off’, the traces of blood normally found when a knife is pulled out of a wound. None on the walls and none on the ceiling, two likely places Waid said. Outside, neither the dirt or plants in the flower boxes looked like it was disturbed and he saw no scuffs or footprints on the fence. The fence’s top rail was, “…flat with dirt and plant material on top.” Cobwebs in the trees too, were also undisturbed.
That was it for the day and Judge Leibowitz called a recess until Thursday morning at 10:00am, when Martin’s direct of Waid will continue.
Sarah Morgan: The Testimony
If anyone thought the absence of Sarah Morgan from the Trouple’s lives was an indication of her belief that they were, at a minimum, not telling the full truth about what happened inside their home on the evening of August 2nd, or at worst, were in involved in his murder, will be disappointed. Her severance from the day-to-day lives of the Trouple after the murder was on the order of her counsel not to speak to them because she was a witness in this case. She teared up when she said this, and it is clear that she dearly values their friendship. From her day on the witness stand she firmly believes they are telling the truth.
This doesn’t mean, though, that her testimony was a boon to the defense. While believing in their innocence she did have to answer several questions that might be harmful to the defense. First, she did testify that each of the three men were fastidious in their cleaning habits. This seems, though, to be at odds with her other testimony that the all three were rather lackadaisical about keeping the house locked. They liked the house spotless, but didn’t mind if it was left open to be spotted by would be burglars and intruders. This doesn’t add up.
Second, she said of the housemates, she was concerned about the safety of the home because of its location. Yet, when a burglary occurred in Chuck Wolf’s home at 1503 Swann Street, and she talked directly with Chuck about the break-in, she didn’t bother to tell any of the housemates. For someone concerned about the safety of the home, this information sounds like it would be topic-A to share with the unconcerned Swann Street roommates to persuade them to her position. The fact that she did not tell them about this robbery is inconsistent with the narrative that she was concerned about safety.
Third, she said that when an evening was over that all the lights on the first floor would be turned out. If this is the case, then how could Dylan Ward see the the lock on the backdoor be in the unlocked position when first going downstairs to a darkened first floor.
Fourth, on the shed and over turned garbage can located in the carport behind the backyard, she said in a direct answer to Judge Liebowitz that Joe and Victor would clean the garbage cans and when they were done they would turn them over. The defense had previously floated the idea that overturned garbage can was an indication that an intruder used it as a launching pad to get over the fence. Again, on direct cross examination from Judge Liebowitz, she said the shed was about “four or five feet away from the fence.” If this is the case, and the intruder used the overturned garbage can and the shed to launch from, they had to go more than four feet in the air before getting to the fence and would have come in contact with the fence, or they were shot out of a canon so that they didn’t disturb any dirt on the top of the fence.
Finally, Judge Liebowitz zeroed in on Sarah Morgan’s role as a member of the Swann Street family when she asked, “You testified that you considered yourself to be a part of the family, in other words, the family made up of the three defendants at Swann Street and you. Is that correct?” Sarah first stumbled out a “yes” and said “our families are very close.” The fact that Judge Liebowitz framed this question to elict a “yes” or “no” answer from Sarah Morgan may indicate that the Judge views Sarah Morgan as not an entirely objective witness, but rather one who might be biased in her answers to protect her “family.” — David