A Germantown, Md., man charged with the October 2015 shooting death of transgender woman Zella Ziona, 21, in an alley behind a Gaithersburg shopping mall was sentenced on Sept. 15 to 35 years in prison.
The sentencing followed two trials in which Montgomery County prosecutors were unable to secure a conviction for Rico LeBlond, who was 20 at the time he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the case.
The first trial ended when the jury was unable to reach a verdict, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial. In the second trial, a jury found LeBlond guilty of first-degree murder and the judge in 2017 sentenced him to life in prison.
But in February 2019 the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the conviction, ruling that the trial court judge made several errors in improperly admitting evidence.
Earlier this year members of Ziona’s family who said at the time of the murder they fully accepted and loved Zella Ziona for who she was, asked prosecutors to offer LeBlond a plea bargain deal to avoid having to go through a third trial, according to WTOP News.
WTOP reported in August that Tyshika Smith, Ziona’s mother, testified during the second trial that she witnessed the murder of her child behind the shopping center in 2015 and did not want to go through the trauma of testifying at another trial. Instead, she urged prosecutors to give LeBlond a chance to confess to the murder and accept responsibility, WTOP reported.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, the lead prosecutor in the case, agreed to the request and LeBlond agreed under advice of his attorney to plead guilty to first-degree murder with the promise by McCarthy that prosecutors would urge the judge to issue a sentence of no greater than 35 years.
McCarthy told the Washington Blade at the time of LeBlond’s second trial that he and investigators determined the murder was not a hate crime based on evidence that surfaced in the case. Among other things, McCarthy said investigators learned that Ziona and LeBlond had been friends since the two were in middle school and that they remained friends after Ziona transitioned as a woman.
According to McCarthy, police and prosecutors were able to substantiate through multiple witnesses that LeBlond and Ziona got into a fight that involved physical violence one day before the shooting and that fight appears to have prompted LeBlond to fatally shoot Ziona the next day on Oct. 15, 2015.
LeBlond formally entered his guilty plea in court on Aug. 6. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Debra Dwyer accepted the plea deal and scheduled a sentencing date for Sept. 15. At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing Dwyer handed down the 35-year sentence as requested in the plea agreement.
“Thirty-five years is a substantial amount of time to think about what he’s done,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney spokesperson Ramon Korionoff told D.C.’s NBC 4 News. “Hopefully, today’s sentence will be the first step on the road to healing for the friends and family of Zella Ziona,” Korionoff said.