Camden Man Convicted In Willard Slaying Case

Posted: May 01, 1991

A U.S. District Court jury last night convicted a Camden man of participating in a conspiracy to murder Southwest Philadelphia hairdresser Donna Willard, but acquitted him of a charge that could have resulted in the death penalty.

Javier Lebron, 23, a former flower deliverer and gas-station attendant, showed no reaction when the jury announced its verdict just before 11:30 after about eight hours of deliberation.

Relatives of Willard, including her three children, lined a row in the courtroom. Her son, Todd, 14, clutched rosary beads, and her eldest daughter, Donna, 11, held tightly onto a tiny picture of her mother. The youngest, Jessica, 7, broke down in sobs after the jury was excused by U.S. District Judge Jay C. Waldman.

"Murderer!" called out a tearful Joan Cattalo, the victim's sister, as Lebron, dressed in jeans, a dungaree jacket and sneakers, was led out of the courtroom. Willard's mother, Marian Wolf - exhausted after a long day in court - seemed at a loss for words.

"We won the battle, but we lost the war," said Wolf, saying that nothing could bring back her daughter.

The prosecutors - U.S. Attorney Michael M. Baylson and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee J. Dobkin - said they were pleased with the jury's verdict. They said that Lebron faced life in prison without parole.

After asking three questions about the law during its deliberations, the jury convicted Lebron of conspiracy and interstate travel for murder for hire, but acquitted him of murdering a federal witness - which carried a possible sentence of death.

A note from the jury to the judge asked whether it was necessary for Lebron to have known that Willard was a federal witness in order to convict him of the latter count.

Defense attorney William T. Cannon said after the verdict that the jury may have decided to acquit on that count because of uncertainty about whether Lebron had that knowledge. Or, he said, the jury may have doubted that Lebron was the triggerman.

Cannon said that Lebron was "gratified" by the acquittal on the one count and was hoping there would be grounds for appeal on his convictions. Cannon said he would definitely appeal.

During closing arguments, Dobkin and Cannon had agreed on one thing - that key government witnesses John C. Foley and James D. Louie, who identified Lebron as the hitman, were despicable men.

But they offered drastically different analyses of the evidence.

In his summation, Dobkin contended that the testimony of Foley and Louie should be accepted because it was corroborated by other evidence, while Cannon argued that the testimony from Foley and Louie was downright unbelievable.

As crucial witnesses for the government, Foley and Louie identified Lebron as the man who entered Willard's rowhouse in the 6200 block of Reedland Street, fired the shots that killed her and then received about $1,000 in cash.

But both men, who have pleaded guilty in the murder, were themselves deeply involved in the planning and were waiting outside in a car when, they said, Lebron carried out the killing.

Lebron's mother and other supporters were in court yesterday, and stayed to themselves away from Willard family members, as the jury weighed the evidence.

In his half-hour summation, Cannon focused on the role of a man who has not been charged in the killing: lawyer Robert B. Burke, who has been a central figure in the investigation since soon after the March 6, 1990, killing.

Prosecutors Dobkin and Baylson have contended that Willard was killed to prevent her from testifying before a federal grand jury investigating Burke for insurance fraud, and Baylson said in his opening that the killing was carried out as a result of "instructions" from Burke.

Burke is serving a five-year prison sentence for masterminding an extensive insurance fraud scheme and then conspiring with Louie and others to obstruct the subsequent federal investigation. His attorney, A. Charles Peruto Sr., has said Burke has insisted he had no knowledge of the slaying.

Cannon contended that Burke had a motive to want Willard killed and that he owned two 9mm guns - the same type used to kill Willard.

Cannon implored the jury to consider the possibility that Foley and Louie acted without Lebron.

"Shooting down Donna Willard was no more difficult for them than shooting ducks at a carnival," said Cannon, who described Louie and Foley as "two men with ice water in their veins."

Cannon conceded that the evidence showed that Lebron had ended up with the 9mm weapon, but he said it made sense that Foley would have given the gun to Lebron after the killing.

Dobkin acknowledged that the two star witnesses were "sleazebags" who had demonstrated no remorse. "The government's not asking you to admire these men," he said.

But Dobkin said that their testimony was corroborated.

He pointed to the testimony of Lebron's brother, who said that he saw bullets in the defendant's bedroom within a month after the shooting and, months later, receipts and money orders totaling about $400.

Dobkin noted that Lebron, during a conversation taped by Foley, made no effort to deny taking part in the murder when Foley asked him if he could get back "the gun."

Dobkin disputed Cannon's argument that Foley and Louie may have carried out the killing without Lebron.

"Members of the jury, respectfully, if you buy that, you buy the tooth fairy," said Dobkin.

He advised them that Louie and Foley would not go free; both could be in prison for life without parole as a result of their guilty pleas.

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