Family and friends of the 21-year-old transgender woman gunned down Thursday in Montgomery County are pressuring prosecutors to bring hate-crime charges against the accused shooter -- and prosecutors say they will continue to evaluate the evidence.
Zella Ziona, 21, was shot multiple times in the head and groin in an alley between two shopping centers in Montgomery Village, police said in documents charging childhood friend Rico Leblond with first-degree murder. Loved ones of Ziona, who also was known as DeAndre Smith, believe Leblond hated her for being transgender.
"It's a hate crime. He wasn't accepted," Ziona's aunt Kalanay Thomas said. "He was a likable, lovable person, so it would be no other reason other than hate."
Smith, who had known Ziona since middle school, was due in court Monday on first-degree murder charges and was set to have the terms of his bond reviewed. His attorney requested that the hearing be postponed.
Prosecutors said outside court on Monday that it was too early to know if they will charge Leblond with a hate crime.
"What's going to make that determination is, and always is, where do the facts lead you and where do the facts tell you the real motivation is?" Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said. "We are dictated not by emotion. We are dictated by facts, logic and what the law requires us to do."
Leblond, who pleaded not guilty, faces life in prison without parole plus 20 years. If he were charged with a hate crime, he would face an additional 20 years.
Police were called to the area where Ziona was killed, near 18312 Contour Road, about 30 minutes before the fatal shooting, News4 learned. Officers responded to a report of a group of people fighting, with one person being hit with a stick.
In charging documents, detectives said they believe Ziona may have been lured to the alley after the initial fight. Police believe Leblond hid behind a dumpster and waited to confront Ziona. Witnesses said he shot her once from a distance and then stood over her and continued to fire. He wore a monster mask over the lower portion of his face, witnesses said.
Prosecutors said they could not recall another deadly attack on a transgender person in the county.
"The nature of this crime here in Montgomery County I think is unprecedented," McCarthy said.
Leblond was arrested in late 2013 in connection with a stabbing and robbery in the Twinbrook Metro station. Prosecutors said it was a case of mistaken identity and that DNA evidence exonerated him.
He was arrested a few weeks ago on charges he stole a car. He will be tried on that charge.
Family members who went to the Montgomery County District Court on Monday wore T-shirts with photos of Ziona before and after she transitioned to living as a woman. #StopTheHate, the shirts said, displaying the murder victim's name as DeAndre "Zella" Smith.
Ziona's cousin Desirae Thomas wept as she explained why her family wore the shirts.
"Just to keep DeAndre with us every step we move, everywhere we go, just to have him," she said.
Leblond is due in court in November.