Murder Trial Keens on Intent, Self-Defense

Argument that led to the May stabbing death of Kevin Mbayo erupted over a clogged toilet, says public defender.

Contrasting pictures emerged today of the violent brawl that ended with 22-year-old Kevin Mbayo stabbed once in his back and bleeding to death at his father’s feet in a Germantown townhouse on May 3—either a deliberate act fueled by a roommate's festering frustration, or an instinctive reaction to defend himself.

The trial of James E. Biddinger, 27, began today in Montgomery County Circuit Court with state prosecutors and public defenders deliberating admissible evidence for more than an hour, followed by four hours of jury selection. The trial’s opening day wrapped with attorneys’ opening statements, Biddinger seated next to his public defenders—his hair tightly shorn and wearing a dress shirt, slacks and thin black tie—while Mbayo’s parents looked on from the rear of the Rockville courtroom.

Attorney's on both sides agreed on how May 3 started:

Biddinger, his fiancée and a friend were at Hard Times Café in Germantown, playing corn hole and drinking on the patio. It started to rain, so the trio went to Biddinger’s house in the 13000 block of Country Ridge Drive, where he lived with Mbayo’s father and two other roommates. Kevin Mbayo was on the couch, where he often was, a sort of live-in guest of his father. Minutes later, Mbayo’s father and Biddinger’s two friends rushed to the living room to find Mbayo on the floor, bloodied by an altercation with Biddinger.

What happened in those few minutes in between, the attorney’s narratives diverged.

The Prosecution

Assistant State’s Attorney Vlatka Tomazic described “a series of conscious decisions” that culminated when Biddinger “took his stiletto knife and plunged it” into Mbayo’s back.

“Kevin Mbayo was there as a guest of his father, but he was a guest who James Biddinger did not welcome,” Tomazic said. “In fact, James Biddinger had a long-standing displeasure for Kevin Mbayo as a non-rent-paying member of the household. And when [Biddinger] came home that night, he decided he was going to confront Kevin Mbayo once and for all. So he took his knife, he went downstairs, he was heated, and he stabbed” Mbayo.

Tomazic told the jury that they will hear testimony from the roommate who was in the basement at the time; a friend of Biddinger who the first person to encounter the scene; Montgomery County officers; a police DNA expert; and the coroner who performed Mbayo’s autopsy.

The jury will also hear that Biddinger fled the scene, threw the knife out of a car window then told police “several versions” of what happened during the fight, Tomazic said.

“Unfortunately, there were only two people present the exact moment that Kevin Mbayo was stabbed, and one of those people is now dead. So what we have, and what you’ll hear, is a number of stories, versions from the defendant’s mouth himself about what happened that night,” Tomazic said. “… When the truth is being told, there is one version. And in this case, ladies and gentlemen, at the end of this case what you are going to know for certain is that James Biddinger is the reason Kevin Mbayo no longer walks among us. … This was one decision, one weapon, one victim and one person who murdered Kevin Mbayo.”

The Defense

But Biddinger’s actions that night came out of self-defense, not murderous intent, said Public Defender Jennifer Dayton.

The narrative Dayton laid out to the jury started with Biddinger, his fiancée and their friend arriving at Biddinger’s house. The friend went to an upstairs bathroom, but there was no toilet paper. Biddinger looked in the downstairs bathroom, Dayton said, and was “met with the overwhelming odor of human feces, and the toilet is clogged with toilet paper and feces.”

When Biddinger confronted Mbayo, Dayton said, Mbayo “didn’t take kindly to it,” and attacked Biddinger.

Dayton drew the jury’s attention to the testimony of Biddinger’s friend, “the one person who actually came down and saw the end of what was going on.”

When the friend went downstairs, Dayton said, she saw the brawl, saw blood, started yelling and jumped into the fray to “wrestle” Mbayo off of her friend.

“She’s going to tell you what she’s been saying all along: Kevin Mbayo was on top of James Biddinger,” Dayton said.

As the friend tried to tend to Mbayo, Biddinger’s fiancée and Mbayo’s father went into the living room. Incensed by the sight of his dying son, Mbayo’s father threatened to kill the friend if she didn’t leave his son alone, Dayton said.

“It was chaotic, it was volatile, and [Biddinger] thought it best to go,” Dayton said.

Refuting the prosecution’s claim that Biddinger fled the scene, Dayton told the jury that Biddinger told 9-1-1 that officers could find him the parking lot of the Germantown WalMart, and later took police to find the knife.

“There is going to be a lot made of what happened after the fact, decisions—be they appropriate or inappropriate, rational or irrational—that were made after the fact,” Dayton said. “But ladies and gentlemen, this case is not about after the fact. This case is about what happened in that moment, at that time.

“This started because a bathroom toilet was clogged, and it went downhill very fast. But it wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t malice of forethought—certainly there was no intent to kill,” Dayton said. “… Self-preservation is a primary instinct of every human being.”

Judge Robert A. Greenberg is presiding over the trial, which resumes at 9:30am Tuesday and is scheduled to last through the week.


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