This past Friday, ABC true-crime show “20/20” threw a spotlight on the 1998 homicide of an Arlington woman and the acquittal of a major suspect, her then-fiancé, last year.
In “The Confession?” ABC went on a deep dive into the death of Andrea Cincotta in her Arlington apartment.
It explained how a confession 20 years later kicked off a special grand jury investigation into the person who confessed, convicted felon Bobby Joe Leonard, and his alleged accomplice, Cincotta’s fiancé James Christopher Johnson. It concludes with their indictment in 2021 and a murder trial in 2022.
Johnson, who was a primary suspect, he says he discovered Cincotta dead in the closet of the apartment they shared back in August 1998. Prosecutors alleged Johnson had hired Leonard to kill Cincotta for $5,000. Last fall, Leonard pleaded guilty and a trial jury acquitted Johnson, who had maintained his innocence.
The trial happened during the tenure of Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. As the race to elect the next Commonwealth’s Attorney heats up, candidate Josh Katcher blasted Dehghani-Tafti — who was elected on a justice reform platform — in a statement highlighting the 20/20 episode.
“My opponent once described herself as an innocence protection attorney,” he said. “It is entirely beyond me how you square that statement with this prosecution.”
For the report, Johnson gave exclusive interviews to ABC, describing how his life changed the day he says he discovered Cincotta, dead, in a closet.
“Something like this… You’re never going to be the same,” Johnson told ABC. “I used to be a lot more trusting. I trusted everyone, trusted the police, and now my eyes have been opened.”
A criminal genius, or an innocent man who confessed to a murder he didn’t commit? Watch the exclusive 20/20 interview you won’t hear anywhere else. The all-new 20/20 with @RyanSmithTV drops TONIGHT at 9/8c on ABC. Stream on Hulu. pic.twitter.com/JQBUfbcTPB
— 20/20 (@ABC2020) March 10, 2023
Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow her office prosecuted the case after Leonard — already in prison for kidnapping, raping and attempting to kill a 13-year-old girl — confessed to killing Cincotta.
When someone is killed and we have evidence we believe is credible, it’s our job to stand up for them and for the community. We knew this was going to be a tough case and we took it to the community in the form of an investigative grand jury, the community investigated and brought back indictments for both Mr. Leonard and Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Leonard pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. We litigated Mr. Johnson’s case in the most transparent, fair way we could, giving them all the evidence we had and all the evidence they needed to defend their client. We don’t run away from hard cases and hard cases are the ones that go to trial. The system worked the way it was designed to work and I respect the jury’s verdict.
The episode walks through procedural and substantive missteps Johnson and his attorneys say Arlington County Police Department made investigating the crime in 1998 — and the prosecution made bringing the case to trial in 2022.
It says police processed the crime in a way that made it harder to find fingerprints on Cincotta’s throat. They questioned Johnson for 28 hours before he broke down and said he had a “vision” of harming Cincotta. He wrote this down, didn’t ask for an attorney, and was released, as the description of what he said he did did not match Cincotta’s autopsy.
“From the onset of the investigation, the Arlington County Police Department has remained committed to pursuing justice on behalf of Andrea Cincotta and her family,” ACPD said in a statement to ARLnow. “The court proceedings are the official release of information in this case and we’ll defer to the court records for additional information presented in this case.”
Two decades after the marathon interrogation, prosecutors used the “vision” statement to show the jury that Johnson lied to throw police off. Arlington Circuit Court Judge Judith Wheat ruled the statement was admissible, the Washington Post’s Tom Jackman, who was interviewed by ABC, reported last year.
The “20/20” episode cast doubt on the validity of this evidence.
“How did this case get charged? As a lawyer, I don’t get it,” a member of the defense team, Frank Salvato, told ABC. “I think prosecutors brought this case hoping they could catch lightning in a bottle.”
Jurors, meanwhile, did not buy the argument that the men knew each other.
“You don’t hire someone to kill someone whom you’ve never met,” jury foreman Chen Ling told ABC. “And, out of all the Bobby Joe Leonard testimony, he never claimed that they met. I feel like that was, for me, the important detail that gave reasonable doubt.”
They were wary of deals struck with Leonard to hear his confession and coax him onto the stand. In exchange to confessing to Arlington cold case Detective Rosa Ortiz in 2018 — when Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos was still in charge — Leonard asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Then, before he took the stand in 2022, he requested to be moved to a lower-security prison.
“We were aware that Bobby Joe Leonard was offered certain things in exchange for his testimony,” said a juror named Chris, who requested ABC withhold his last name. “It seemed to me the police were just hammering home what they took to be the case.”
But the special grand jury that initially investigated Johnson believed there was enough evidence to go to trial, points out Edward Ungvarsky, an Alexandria-based private criminal defense lawyer.
Ungvarsky tells ARLnow that this case is an example of the system working and credited Dehghani-Tafti for bringing the case to the special grand jury and sharing exculpatory information with the defense.
Prosecutors will convene special grand juries “if they are going to give the community, which is the people who comprise the grand jury, the opportunity and power to decide whether to bring charges and what charges to bring and to investigate the case,” Ungvarsky noted. “Using a special grand jury increases community empowerment and accountability in the charging, and provides greater transparency and fairness to the defendant and the defense.”
In addition, special grand juries often have higher standards than regular grand juries, which are more commonly used to indict someone. This process is transcribed and copies are given to defense lawyers before trial. Witnesses testify and jurors can ask questions.
The grand jury “was advantageous for the defense,” Ungvarsky said, adding that they also benefited from the prosecution making available to them a local expert in false confessions, former D.C. police Detective James Trainum.
Trainum said Johnson’s confession was false and advised the prosecution not to use it. Prosecutors shared his information with Johnson’s attorneys, Ungvarsky and one of Johnson’s defense attorney confirmed to ARLnow.
“In this case, there was… lots of favorable information to help the defendant help defend himself at trial, and I think that really needs to be recognize,” Ungvarsky said. “It’s proper to do so because it’s exculpatory, favorable evidence.”
Not providing favorable information, called a “Brady disclosure,” is more common, he says.
Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Katcher, however, was more pessimistic in his reading. He says the case belies his opponent’s lack of experience.
Katcher’s full statement is below.
Real justice means only engaging in just prosecutions. The 20/20 exposé on my opponent’s decision to prosecute an innocent man for murder, highlights exactly why relevant experience matters when it comes to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
This is not about trying ‘tough cases.’ This was about making a tough decision, and my opponent failed. Mr. Johnson will forever live as someone accused of murder.
My opponent once described herself as an innocence protection attorney. It is entirely beyond me how you square that statement with this prosecution.
The foreperson of the jury in the Johnson case asked, “Why did [the prosecution] even bother to bring the case?” My opponent owes an answer to Mr. Johnson and this community.
The Arlington Circuit Court will soon send out its annual juror questionnaires, which determine who will get jury duty next year.
In early August, the court will be sending postcards to a random group of residents of Arlington County and Falls Church. These postcards instruct residents how to fill out their juror questionnaires online.
Recipients will be chosen from voter rolls provided by the State Board of Elections, according to a county press release. Court-appointed jury commissioners will review the completed questionnaires to decide who is eligible for service, using standards set by the Virginia General Assembly.
“The questionnaire is not a summons to appear so please do not call the Clerk’s Office asking to be excused from jury duty,” the press release said. “Excuses will be considered at the time you are actually summoned to serve as a juror.”
Residents have ten days to complete the questionnaire.
“Failure to respond to the questionnaire or providing incomplete information may result in your being summoned to Court to complete the form in person,” the press release said.
If selected, jurors will typically serve one to two days or one trial for a time period between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Jurors selected may be summoned any time between Jan. 1, 2022 and Dec. 31, 2022. Each juror will receive $30 each day they report for reimbursement of expenses.
A federal grand jury has indicted an Arlington lawyer on charges related to paying underage girls for sex.
Matthew Erausquin, 46, was arrested in November after a 1.5-year-long investigation. He was charged in Alexandria federal court with sex trafficking minors, producing child pornography, and charges related to transporting or forcing victims to cross state lines for sex.
If convicted, he faces between 15 years to a lifetime in prison, although sentences for federal crimes are typically shorter than the maximum penalties, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a press release.
“The defendant allegedly used his money and power to sexually exploit minors,” said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to holding accountable those who prey on and victimize children, and to seeking justice for society’s most vulnerable members.”
Court documents allege that Erausquin paid for sex with six underage girls and three young adults over three years. During that time, the documents say he secretly recorded some of his encounters.
He allegedly met some of the girls on Seeking Arrangement, a website where men seek younger partners looking for financial help. In other instances, prosecutors say he posed as an 18 or 19-year-old on the dating app Tinder.
“Erausquin lured the girls into commercial sex arrangements, paying the girls between $500 to $800 each per sexual encounter and offering to pay at least $1,000 for threesome sexual activity,” said the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office. “In addition to these payments, Erausquin gave the girls marijuana and expensive gifts, such as [Tiffany & Co.] purses.”
According to a Fairfax County police affidavit, the investigation began in 2019, after a high school student reported to police that a man in his 40s had paid two victims $1,000 for a threesome, Virginia Lawyers Weekly previously reported.
One girl alleges that she “passed out after taking a hit of marijuana at Erausquin’s Arlington apartment, then woke up with no clothes on,” according to the Washington Post. Some were lured to the area from out of town with first-class plane tickets purchased by Erausquin, the Post also reported.
According to an affidavit, some underage victims told police that he likely knew they not yet 18.
Erausquin was a founding partner of the Alexandria office of the firm Consumer Litigation Associates. CLA has since removed his office from its list of locations.
Flickr photo by Joe Gratz
After a months-long hiatus due to the pandemic, Arlington County is preparing to resume jury trials.
“The Arlington Circuit Court is planning to resume jury trials in September 2020,” the court says on its website. “If you received a juror summons for a reporting date after September 1, 2020, please carefully read the front and back of the summons and follow all instructions. Visit the Juror Website or call the Juror Hotline 703-228-0533 to confirm receipt of the summons and to make requests to be deferred or excused.”
The court website says a number of safety measures will be in place, including mandatory mask-wearing for everyone in the courthouse, temperature checks, staggered juror arrival times, social distancing, and readily-available hand sanitizer and wipes.
“Every person who has a case in the Circuit Court is afforded the opportunity of a jury trial pursuant to our Constitution,” the court in a FAQ document. “In resuming jury trials which were delayed due to COVID-19, the Arlington Circuit Court fully understands the need to protect the health and safety of jurors, trial participants, county employees, and the public.”
Those with valid health concerns, COVID-19 risk factors, and known exposures to the virus can request to be excused from jury duty.
Flickr photo by Joe Gratz
A Maryland man has been found guilty of a fatal hit and run accident that occurred on Route 50 in 2011.
Yorktown High School grad Zorigoo Munkhbayar, 23, was walking along eastbound Route 50 near Courthouse early on the morning of Sept. 16, 2011, when he was struck by a box truck. The truck and its driver did not remain at the scene. Police later found Munkhbayar dead, lying in the roadway on the Route 50 exit to N. Rhodes Street.
A month later, after analyzing parts of the truck that were left at the scene, police arrested Marc D. Hicks of Oxon Hill, Md., and charged him with hit and run.
The case went to trial on Monday, with Hicks maintaining that he did not know he struck Munkhbayar. Hicks, 43, claimed that he thought damage to his truck was caused by a deer he struck in Maryland later that morning. (The truck belongs to a commercial snack delivery business.)
On Thursday, however, an Arlington County jury found Hicks guilty of felony hit and run, recommending a sentence of 15 months in prison, according to prosecutors. Hicks will remain in the Arlington County jail pending a final sentencing hearing that’s scheduled for Friday, May 17. At that hearing, a judge will have the option of either imposing the recommended sentence or a reduced sentence.
Jennifer Clarke, the Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney who prosecuted the case, told ARLnow.com that Hicks was only charged with hit and run, and not any other crimes, because the facts of the case did not suggest that he was negligent in the accident.
“There was no evidence of reckless driving, there was no evidence of intoxication or any impairment, it was just an accident that happened… and he just didn’t stay on scene,” she said.
Clarke said that there were no witnesses to the accident.
(Updated at 2:10 p.m.) The jury that convicted 25-year-old Javon Martin of robbery and first degree felony murder yesterday for the stabbing of Arlington resident Carl Diener recommends that Martin receive a 27 year sentence.
The jury had the option of recommending sentences up to life in prison for Martin. He is expected to be formally sentenced before Judge Louise DiMatteo in May.
Martin’s cousin and co-defendant, Roger Clark III, pleaded guilty to Diener’s murder last year and will be sentenced at some point in the future. The maximum sentence Clark could receive is 25 years in prison; he was offered a reduced sentence as part of a plea deal for testifying against Martin.
Arlington County sent out the following press release about Martin’s conviction and recommended sentence:
ARLINGTON, Va. – An Arlington County jury yesterday found Javon Martin guilty of murder and robbery for the December 29, 2009 homicide of Carl Diener. Following the guilty finding, the members of the jury recommended a 27 year sentence for Martin, 25, formerly of Washington, D.C. Formal sentencing by Judge Louise DiMatteo is scheduled for a later date.
Theophani K. Stamos, Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney and M. Douglas Scott, Arlington County’s Chief of Police made the announcement after the conclusion of the trial.
Diener, 57, a retired federal government employee and a well known and loved member of the Lyon Park community, was found by a passerby stabbed to death lying on the street in the 3200 block of N. 13th Street. As was his practice, he awoke early in the morning to open a local health and fitness club for members. As Mr. Diener was walking from his longtime home to the health and fitness club, he was brutally attacked and left to die.
“From that cold December morning when Mr. Diener’s body was found, the Arlington County Police Department never wavered in their determination to solve this murder, investing hundreds of hours in this investigation,” commented Chief Scott. As a result, murder charges were brought against Roger K. Clark III, 22, of Severn, Maryland, and Javon Martin in June of 2011. Clark pleaded guilty and is currently awaiting sentencing.
Following the trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stamos said, “We are extremely grateful to the jury — all of whom worked so hard to reach the right conclusion. Our prayers go out to Carl Diener’s family and hope they will find some comfort in knowing those responsible for his death were held accountable by this community.”
Arlington County Deputy Chief Daniel J. Murray, Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division added, “The Homicide Robbery Unit’s efforts and a strong partnership with the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office have resulted in two dangerous individuals being removed from the streets. Unfortunately none of our efforts could ever bring Mr. Diener back and the Arlington community is much poorer for the loss of this great friend to everyone.”
Master Police Officer Rosa Ortiz was the lead detective and the case was prosecuted by Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Molly Newton and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John Lynch.