D.C.'s Toughest Judge?

"Smart and relentless" Leibovitz is now presiding

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Monday, Jul 5, 2010  |  Updated 7:15 AM EDT
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D.C.'s Toughest Judge?

AP

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Lynn Leibovitz is not a household name in Washington, but she is becoming one of the most prominent judges on the D.C. Superior Court. As the judge in the bench trial of the three defendants accused of conspiracy in the murder of Robert Wone, it was up to Leibovitz alone to decide their fate.

Though Leibovitz has only recently started presiding over Felony One cases, she has been on the bench for some high-profile trials since President George W. Bush tapped her for the court in 2001. The former prosecutor is known for being tough. One defense attorney told the Washington Post, “She’s smart and relentless, and she knows the law. She knows it better than a lot of lawyers, and she’s not shy about challenging them.”

Before the Wone case, the most famous defendant to appear before her was John Tsombikos. Though he’s not a household name either, his nom de graffiti is: Throughout 2005, “Borf” tags appeared all over the city, even covering half a sign over I-66 at the Roosevelt Bridge. When Leibovitz sentenced Tsombikos, then 18, in 2006, she told him, “You’re a rich kid who comes into Washington and defaces property because you feel like it.”

Leibovitz tagged Borf with a month in jail. His lawyer pleaded with Leibovitz to send his client to a halfway house, but the judge wasn’t hearing it. She replied, “I want him to see what the inside of the D.C. jail looks like, because unlike every other person you’ve seen in my courtroom this morning, who have a ninth-grade education, who are drug-addicted, who have had childhoods the likes of which you could not conceive, you come from privilege and opportunity and seem to think that the whole world is just like McLean and just like East 68th Street. Well, it’s not.”

(In a jail interview with Washington City Paper, Tsombikos said he had no remorse, and compared Leibovitz to a piece of excrement.)

This past January, Leibovitz showed herself to be just as tough on a defendant six decades Borf’s senior. Antiwar activist Eve Tetaz had 14 convictions on her rap sheet when she came before Leibovitz. The 78-year-old, who has been convicted of unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, crossing a police line, and other offenses, was so familiar to Magistrate Judge Michael McCarthy that he had warned her that, eventually, she might encounter a judge who would do more than sentence her to time served or send her on her way with a fine.

Leibovitz was that judge.

She sent the activist to jail for 25 days after Tetaz and other protestors disrupted a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing by yelling and tossing dollar bills covered in actual human blood -- their own. Leibovitz said Tetaz’s moves “demeaned the action of protest.”

So it wasn’t a lack of resolve that led Leibovitz to acquit Joseph Price, Dylan Ward, and Victor Zaborsky of covering up the August 2006 murder of Robert Wone. She had repeatedly interrupted defense counsel’s closing arguments, asking pointed questions about the conduct of the three men. In announcing her decision, Leibovitz said she believes the men made up a story about an intruder, and said she thinks they know who killed Wone.

But she said prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the men were guilty of conspiracy.

It must have been a tough call for D.C.’s toughest judge.

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