After five years of legal wrangling, a hung jury, and an overturned conviction, a Montgomery County man has pleaded guilty to fatally shooting a transgender woman who was a childhood acquaintance of his.
Rico LeBlond, 25, had previously been tried twice for the murder of 21-year-old Zella Ziona in an alley behind Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg.
Ziona was shot in October 2015 after entering an alley were an altercation was occurring. Ziona’s mother, Tyshika Smith, testified that her child was shot by a masked man in the alleyway. She called 911, but paramedics were unable to save Ziona.
Prosecutors brought charges against LeBlond for first-degree murder, based on police reports that Ziona and LeBlond had known each other since middle school and were engaged in a verbal altercation before LeBlond allegedly shot her, according to FOX5 DC.
LeBlond’s first trial ended with a hung jury. He was convicted of Ziona’s murder in a second trial and sentenced to life in prison, but an appeals court later overturned that conviction on the grounds that the judge in the case had erred in allowing the former testimony of an unavailable witness to be admitted, as well as hearsay testimony from a detective that the unavailable witness had identified LeBlond as the shooter.
LeBlond’s lawyers also argued successfully that the jury had been prejudiced by a series of photographs showing him posing with firearms, among other issues.
Five years later, LeBlond has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as part of an agreement, requested by the victim’s family, that is designed to avoid a third trial.
Prosecutors had previously alleged that LeBlond had shot Ziona because he became embarrassed after she flirted with him in front of his friends, but Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said the motive was a gang turf dispute, noting that different groups of individuals, some affiliated with gangs, had been involved in fights in the 24 hours prior to Ziona’s murder.
McCarthy claimed Ziona entered the alley assuming there would be another fistfight, but said the theory that LeBlond shot her due to his own embarrassment was never proven true.
According to WTOP, Circuit Court Judge Debra Dwyer accepted LeBlond’s plea deal, which asks that he not be sentenced to more than 35 years in prison. LeBlond is currently being held without bond as he awaits his sentencing hearing on Sept. 15.
McCarthy said Ziona’s family was “relieved” that LeBlond took responsibility for her death and that Smith would not have to testify at a third trial, given that her last testimony took an “enormous emotional toll” on her.
LeBlond’s defense lawyer, David Felsen, told WTOP that his client “opted to accept responsibility” in Ziona’s shooting, but indicated that he would be asking for significantly less jail time than the maximum of 35 years at the sentencing hearing.
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