After life sentence overturned, guilty plea in Md. transgender murder case

The first time Rico Leblond went on trial for killing a transgender woman he’d known for years, there was a hung jury.

The second time, he was convicted by a Montgomery County, Maryland, jury and sentenced to life in prison, but an appeals court overturned the conviction.

On Thursday, Leblond pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as part of a plea agreement that will obviate a third trial, in a case in which the victim’s mother witnessed her child’s killing.

Circuit Court Judge Debra Dwyer accepted the plea deal, which asks the judge to not sentence Leblond to more than 35 years in prison, although she is allowed to deviate.

“We are hopeful and believe the judge will go along with that,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

Leblond, 25, was convicted in July 2017 of first-degree murder in the death of Zella Ziona, a 21-year-old transgender woman.

During that trial, Tyshika Smith testified to the horror of watching her child get shot by a masked man in an alley behind a Gaithersburg shopping center in October 2015.

The plea deal came at the request of the victim’s family. McCarthy told WTOP Thursday that Smith’s testimony “had taken an enormous emotional toll,” and she didn’t want to go through it again. Mainly, McCarthy said, she wanted Leblond to accept responsibility, which he did.

“There has been two trials, neither of which resulted in a conviction at the end of the day,” defense lawyer David Felsen said, but after the offer from the state that capped jail time at 35 years, LeBlond “opted to accept his responsibility in this matter.” He added that “We will be requesting … significantly less [jail time] than that.”

Ziona and Leblond had known each other since middle school. Prosecutors has at one time said Leblond was embarrassed when Ziona flirted with him in front of his male friends, but McCarthy told WTOP on Thursday that the motive was a gang turf dispute.

“There were different groups of individuals,” some affiliated with gangs, “who had been beefing,” McCarthy said. “There had been some fights that had transpired in the previous 24 hours.” Ziona went into the alley assuming there would be another fistfight, but instead was gunned down.

As for the assertion of embarrassment, McCarthy said, “None of the other things that had been discussed ever proved to be true.”

Leblond was sentenced to life in prison after his first conviction, but the conviction was overturned in February 2019 by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.

The court ruled that the circuit court made several errors, even though Leblond had been seen on surveillance video in the area before and after the shooting, his DNA was on clothing hidden at the crime scene that matched descriptions of the shooter’s attire, and he was identified by name by Ziona’s best friend.

The appeals panel said admitting previous testimony of unavailable witnesses, as well as the admission of a series of photographs depicting Leblond with guns, made them unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the errors in circuit court didn’t affect the verdict.

Court records obtained by WTOP indicate that Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Mays and defense attorney David Felsen will ask Circuit Court Judge Debra Dwyer on Thursday to accept the plea agreement and not sentence Leblond to more than 35 years in prison.

Under Maryland law, a first-degree murder conviction — based on premeditation — calls for a life sentence, either with or without the possibility of parole.

Leblond’s sentence would be five years more than the 30-year maximum penalty for a second-degree murder conviction.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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