Demar Rhome thought he could get away with murder. And if he wasn't crazy enough to fire his lawyers and plead his own case in court he might have.
Demar Rhome expected more gratitude from the Seattle media.
He delivered up a sensational murder: the November 2003 stabbing death of 17-year-old Lashonda Flynn. All the combustible ingredients—sex, race, and violence—were present.
Although the killer, 17-year-old Kialani Brown, had confessed to the stabbing, Demar was charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors had to meet a steep legal standard: They had to prove that Demar not only aided in Lashonda's death, but that he orchestrated her death, and had done so with premeditation. Since Demar did not physically commit the murder, any reasonably competent attorney could prepare a convincing defense.
But Demar entrusted his case to one of the worst attorneys ever to try a case in King County Superior Court: himself.
Every time the court appointed Demar a lawyer, Demar fired him. By serving as his own attorney, the cameras would focus on him—a lean, dashing figure, his head shaved smooth, one man fighting for his own freedom. His trial would be a sensation.
On every day of his trial, as he entered the courtroom, he'd look for the television cameras. He rarely saw them. The newspapers wrote about him, but they dismissed his conspiracy theories. "The newspapers and TV news are filled with lies," Demar told the jury. Demar wanted to play the "victim" at his trial, but no one was buying it. However, he is a victim of sorts—a man victimized by a turbulent childhood, a mental-health system that lacked the resources to save him, and his own destructive impulses.
Lashonda Flynn was sitting in a bus shelter, crying, when out of the autumn rain stepped Demar Rhome. She told him she'd been kicked out of her grandmother's home, that she had nowhere to go. Demar told Lashonda that his name was Devante Carlson. Then he asked her age. She was 16. Demar, then 19, took her home with him.
Speaking from the other side of a visitation booth at King County Correctional Facility, Demar told me, "Personally, I don't have any passionate desire toward black women," and that included Lashonda.
Lashonda was either desperate or enthralled—or both. She gave Demar complete control. Lashonda wasn't allowed to sit next to him on the bus. He didn't want people to think she was his girlfriend. When they walked in public, he made her stay far behind. Demar said during the trial that she begged him for sex. He occasionally obliged.
Lashonda slept on a mattress on the floor of Demar's apartment on 23rd Avenue and Pine Street. In exchange for his hospitality she had to make money. Sometimes that meant begging her grandmother, Olla Pinder. Other times it meant a trip to Aurora Avenue, where Demar pimped her. (Demar claims he tried to talk Lashonda out of prostitution, but admits he collected $500 every time she walked the streets.)
They fought, especially toward the end. A voice-mail recording played at the trial gives a sample. "Your daughter told you that I put her up to hoin' out there," he rages at Pinder. "Your daughter told you that I tried to rape her... Your daughter has told you so much lies... This girl stalks me up and down the street... I didn't want nothing to do with her."
In another voice mail, Lashonda is speaking but Demar can be heard in the background giving orders. A man named Greg had apparently called Demar on Pinder's behalf to scold him for his treatment of Lashonda. "I'm asking out of politeness," says Lashonda, to her grandmother. "Tell Greg to not call back at this number because this is not my house and this is not my phone and Devante doesn't want him calling here... He don't know Devante, and you guys don't know him like I know him."
Devante Carlson is also the name Demar used on his voice mailbox on a telephone party line. "Handsome in the face, thick in the ass" is how he described himself, and to female callers he promised "sit-down delicate dinners" and "sexual experiences nonstop." But he made it clear that though he was black, he would not date black women.
Kialani Brown, who was white and Hawaiian, responded. From Vancouver, Washington, Kialani told Demar she had been beaten by the father of her 2-year-old child. Three weeks after she first spoke with him, she was boarding a bus for Seattle with her son.
"It seemed like it would be a nice vacation," said Kialani, in a statement to the prosecutor. "He described his apartment and it sounded like a nice place in a nice neighborhood. I quickly learned that was not true."
Demar told Kialani that Lashonda was his foster sister. If Lashonda mentioned being raped or abused by Demar, Kialani was to ignore it because Lashonda was a "pathological liar," Demar told her.
The first few days passed harmoniously, but Demar's pleasant manner didn't last. "He kept saying he had to get rid of Lashonda," said Kialani in her statement to the prosecutor.
Soon Demar was demanding that Kialani call her mother to have money wired. Demar even tried to force her to turn tricks on Aurora Avenue. Once, said Kialani, he raped her. (Demar says that during their week together the sex was consensual.)
Demar also told Kialani that Lashonda would kill her in her sleep, along with Kialani's son. Demar offered a solution: Kialani should kill Lashonda first.
It is hard to excavate Demar's past. He gave me a phone number for his biological mother, but no one answered. The number he gave me for his brother was disconnected.
Demar says social workers took him from his biological mother when he was 5. "They claimed she was abusing me, but that was incorrect," he says. "I never suffered any sexual or physical or emotional abuse."
However, he says that during his childhood he lived in homes where he witnessed "family members pulling guns on each other," and he wonders whether those incidents led him to act out. In trial, the prosecutor mentioned an instance where Demar threatened to cut off the breasts of one foster mother.
His erratic behavior earned him trips to juvenile institutions, where mental-health treatment is by definition reactive. It's also brief, and for kids like Demar whose families lack the money for continuing treatment, personality disorders flourish and lead, predictably, to a crisis.
One clinician diagnosed Demar as schizophrenic, another with posttraumatic stress disorder in connection with trauma from his childhood. Others who saw Demar would disagree, but it was enough to qualify for mental-health-care payments. It wasn't much to live on, but Demar hustled for extra bucks—petty theft, extortion, and pimping.
Demar's present situation, however, is relatively easy to unpack. In anticipation of his trial, Demar was sent to Western State Hospital in Tacoma. They've seen their share of psychopathic behavior, but the staff seemed to marvel at Demar's symptoms. "He thinks he's the only sane person here," wrote one staff member in a report. "He thinks all the staff are ugly and that he's the only good-looking person here, and that's why the staff pick on him... I've been here 20 years and he's the most stuck on himself [patient] I've ever seen."
Dr. Jason Dunham, the head of Demar's evaluation team, said that every clinician who treated Demar drew the same conclusion: "Mr. Rhome is an extremely antisocial person." Demar's was a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder, characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance and a lack of real concern for others. Dr. Dunham conceded the possibility that Demar's behavior was psychopathic.
On the evening of Thursday, November 20, 2003, Demar, Lashonda, Kialani, and her 2-year-old son, ate dinner at Torero's Mexican Restaurant on Broadway. After they finished, Demar left the table. Upon returning he told the girls that a waiter had threatened to kill him. Demar summoned the manager, who brought over the waiter; but the waiter said that it was Demar who approached him and threatened his life.
"The manager remembered Demar Rhome," according to detectives, "because he had come into the establishment a number of times and always made allegations that something was wrong with his food, thereby getting free meals."
After they left the restaurant, Demar told the girls they needed to arm themselves. At a dollar store on Broadway, Demar bought two eight-inch steak knives. The clerks there remembered Demar as a guy who frequently complained about the prices.
In a statement she gave to the prosecutor in January, Kialani said that prior to that evening, Demar "repeatedly asked the two girls to have sex either with him or with each other as he watched."
When they returned to his apartment, Demar apparently set about trying to merge his three-way fantasy with Lashonda's murder. Kialani told the prosecutor that Demar took her aside that night to tell her she needed to kill Lashonda now. "Demar showed me how to stab Lashonda, and told me to use all my strength," said Kialani in her statement. "Demar gave me the rope and told me to tie her up and tell her he had a surprise for her." Kialani took off most of her own clothes and Lashonda stripped naked. "She kept asking what the surprise was and complied with being tied up," said Kialani, whose 2-year-old was sleeping in the next room.
In trial, Demar recounted how he walked into the room to see Lashonda tied up and naked, with Kialani astride her, "licking her bootyhole."
Then Kialani thrust the steak knife into Lashonda's back. She stabbed Lashonda three more times, once in the neck. "Lashonda said, 'Devante, why are you doing this to me?'" said Kialani. And according to Kialani, Demar laughed and chanted Lashonda's last words: "Devante, why are you doing this to me."
Demar hadn't devoted much thought to what would happen after the murder. He and Kialani cleaned the blood from the room, then he had her call a cab. Lashonda's body, wrapped in blankets, was zipped into a duffel bag, which Demar hauled out and loaded into the trunk of the cab. While Kialani helped her 2-year-old boy into the backseat, Demar told the driver to head for Discovery Park.
Demar argued over the fare with the cab driver. Then he dumped Lashonda's corpse into some bushes.
Demar and Kialani would spend the next day arguing bitterly. Worried that Kialani might go to the police, Demar told Kialani's mother that her daughter had killed his friend Lashonda. When the police arrived, Demar led them to the body and told them that he believed Kialani had planned all along to kill Lashonda and frame him for the murder.
For an audience, a murder defendant acting as his own defense attorney makes great theater, but for the prosecutor, it is excruciating. Hugh Barber, the prosecutor assigned to Demar's case, had to keep his composure while Demar accused him of racism and fabricating evidence. Barber also had to resist the impulse to humiliate Demar. "You have to worry about the jury feeling sorry for this person," Barber told me, "even if they know he had could have chosen a lawyer."
So he stuck to a simple strategy: give Demar enough rope to hang himself.
Demar's story went like this: Kialani wanted him to kill the father of her child, so Kialani murdered Lashonda to trap him.
Demar admitted that he lied in his statements to police—but each lie was an unselfish gesture. "I led [police] to a house where it didn't happen," he testified, because he wanted to spare his own landlord the aggravation of dealing with police. He lied about Lashonda being his ex-girlfriend, he testified, "to give her respect, because Lashonda didn't deserve to die that night."
Demar's taped interviews with detectives are full of contradictions. He tried to solve this problem by accusing police of dubbing the tape with a voice that sounded like his own. "I know it sounds strange," Demar told the jury. "I know it sounds queer. Something was done to that tape... with technology these days, I wouldn't be surprised."
There still remained the question of why Demar didn't intervene when he saw Kialani raise the knife. "I was suffering from mental illness," Demar testified. "I didn't believe what I was seeing."
For a first-degree murder conviction, Barber needed to prove premeditation. So on cross-examination, he asked Demar about Kialani's alleged proposal to pay Demar to kill her baby's father: "I would have taken it into consideration," Demar testified. When the prosecutor asked Demar if he contemplated killing Kialani after he disposed of Lashonda's body, he said, "I did ponder it." If he mulled over those two murders, the prosecution argued, he could have planned Lashonda's. Demar was clearly capable of premeditated murder.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Danko was appointed Demar's stand-by counsel. Danko was in court throughout the trial, ready to take over the defense if Demar suddenly lost faith in his own ability. Danko wouldn't speculate on whether he could have saved Demar from a lengthy prison sentence, but Danko said he would have built his case around this question: "How does a man convince a 17-year-old woman to kill a 17-year-old woman when they've only been together for six days? It's counterintuitive," says Danko. "A case could have been made that the state's evidence didn't add up."
That might have been enough to create reasonable doubt, which can be enough for acquittal, or at least a hung jury.
It would be wrong to say that Demar's defense was a legal blooper reel—there were flashes of competence.
One of Demar's sharper points was saying that if he really wanted Lashonda dead, he could have easily killed her himself.
Barber was ready for that.
"There's nothing sexy about a 20-year-old man killing a sleeping 17-year-old girl," the prosecutor said. "But when you can get one girl to get nearly naked and—without resistance—she gets the second girl to get completely naked, and you sit there and watch while the one acts out this murder fantasy, that's sexy. That's the ultimate control!"
As the trial neared it end, it became clear that Demar-the-attorney had failed Demar-the-client. In his closing remarks, Demar attempted to inspire empathy in the jury: "We all bleed the same blood," he told them. "We all cry the same tears. We all urinate the same urine. We all poop the same poop." In his desperation, Demar nearly confessed. "If I really—in the Lord Jesus Christ's name—win this jury trial," he said, "I will have no more involvements in homicide."
After just five hours, the jury convicted him. On April 14, he'll be sentenced. Demar Rhome faces up to 30 years in prison.
Shackles and a white jail jumpsuit have taken the swagger out of Demar Rhome's step. He had asked that I bring photographers to our interview, but cameras weren't allowed. Just as well, without the chance to shave his face or head, Demar wasn't feeling so photogenic.
He was still feeling like the victim of Kialani's diabolical plan. "She was desperate to have her baby's dad out of her life," he says. "I didn't accept any money from her because I was going to have bad feelings about it."
Kialani pled guilty to second-degree murder and will be sentenced on April 21. She faces up to 18 years. Kialani's son is being cared for by her family in Vancouver.
In our meeting, Demar denied trying to persuade his two female friends to stage a lesbian scene, but he says that Kialani told him she was bisexual, and he told her, "I have a young friend (Lashonda) who is also bisexual and if you two want to engage in sexual experiences, that is fine." He also explained to me how he seduced Kialani Brown. "I said we'd have sophisticated times together. I wanted to eat her booty, suck her booty, suck her toes, eat her pussy—so I was real articulate."
It was a key point in the prosecution, that Demar was driven by sexual fantasies; while he denies that, it's clear from his words that he'd be turned on by a violent lesbian sex scene: "I've done everything from 69 to three-way and four-way," says Demar. "And yes, I've witnessed it on various occasions—women sucking each others' bootyholes, dominatrixes whipping each other. I've been involved in that."
I asked Demar if he regretted acting as his own attorney.
"I don't have any regrets," said Demar, "but I am definitely regretful that this murder case ever happened—I wouldn't be in King County Correctional. I wouldn't be looking at nearly 30 years in prison."
For a moment, Demar seemed to choke up.
After a short silence, I asked him what he misses most about being a free man.
"I miss hanging out with young females," he said.