Man acquitted of murder in Va. loses lawsuit over misleading testimony

After eight years of investigating the cold-blooded murder case of Andrea Cincotta, Arlington County homicide Detective Rosa Ortiz took her evidence to a special grand jury in 2021. She had interviewed a convicted rapist in prison, who He told Ortiz that he had killed Cincotta at the request of Cincotta's fiancee, James Christopher Johnson.

But Ortiz's grand jury appearance involved "unleashing a torrent of false and misleading testimony" about Johnson, his attorneys argued, leading Johnson being charged with one count of murder for hire. When the case came to trial in 2022, a jury acquitted Johnson in less than an hour. A year later, after the case was featured nationally on both NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20," Johnson sued Ortiz for alleged malicious prosecution.

Acquitted of murder-for-hire, Virginia man sues Arlington police detective

Now a federal judge has dismissed that civil case.

Witnesses who testify before a grand jury have absolute immunity from lawsuits, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012, and U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria agreed. Prosecutors decide whether to present a case to a grand jury, not police officers, and grand juries decide whether to present indictments, not witnesses, Brinkema said. And Ortiz was not the only witness who testified. Johnson also testified, as did six other witnesses, including the convicted rapist.

“For these reasons,” the judge concluded on February 28, “Johnson's claims fail because the special grand jury and the Commonwealth's Attorney made independent decisions to charge and prosecute the case against Johnson, severing the connection between the alleged investigative conduct unconstitutional of Detective Ortiz and Johnson's injury.

Lawyers for Johnson and Ortiz did not respond to requests for comment, and Ortiz also did not respond. Brinkema dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought again.

The ruling may be the final chapter in the tragic saga of Andrea Cincotta, 52, a beloved Arlington County librarian who went swimming regularly on the morning of Aug. 21, 1998, then failed to show up for a lunch date with a friend or for a movie night with Johnson, her longtime roommate. Johnson called 911 shortly after 1 a.m. when she said she woke up, realized the closet door was closed and discovered Cincotta's body inside. They had strangled her.

Arlington police immediately zeroed in on Johnson as a suspect and questioned him for 28 hours over the next three days, with Detective Robert Carrig falsely telling Johnson that his fingerprints had been found on Cincotta's body and that he was believed to be the time of his death was after Johnson. he had arrived home. Johnson repeatedly denied killing his fiancee.

Eventually, Johnson fell into an apparent trance state, according to video played at pretrial hearings. He told Detective Cynthia Brenneman that he had a “dream vision” in which he threw Cincotta against a desk, where she hit her head and died. Cincotta had not suffered a fatal head injury. In 1998, an expert told police that the confession appeared false, as proven by court testimony, and Johnson was not charged. Johnson told the Washington Post in 2002 that the confession had been coerced using information provided by detectives.

He said he had a "vision" of his fiancee's death. It wasn't what it seemed.

In 2013, Ortiz took over the case and in 2018 visited Bobby Joe Leonard at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, where he was serving time for raping and strangling a 13-year-old girl. Cincotta had allowed Leonard into his apartment shortly before his death to give him a computer he no longer needed, and Arlington police questioned him in 1998 and cleared him.

This time, Leonard said he had strangled Cincotta, but he did so after an unknown white man called him and offered him $5,000 to commit the murder. He did not know the man's name, never met him and did not receive the $5,000, Leonard said. But Arlington prosecutors reached a deal to eliminate the death penalty, then still an option in Virginia, in exchange for their information, which Leonard repeated before the special grand jury. He subsequently pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and testified at Johnson's trial.

A murderer describes his crime, then claims it was against a man he never met

Also in 2018, Ortiz sent three different people with hidden recorders, including Cincotta's adult son, Kevin Cincotta, to ask Johnson about the murder, but Johnson always denied any involvement.

Johnson, Leonard, and Kevin Cincotta testified before the grand jury in October 2021, along with Ortiz, and the grand jury indicted both Johnson and Leonard.

In one hour, Arlington jury acquits man accused of murder for hire

A year after Johnson's acquittal, he sued Ortiz, listing numerous false or misleading statements she made to the grand jury, including that Leonard had identified Johnson by name as the man who hired him. Ortiz also allegedly testified that Andrea Cincotta's cause of death matched the injuries she described in her "dream vision" (it was not), that the couple had a history of domestic disputes (they did not), and that she had tried a vacuum cleaner. cleaning bag for evidence (she hadn't made it).

Ortiz's attorneys, Leslie A. Winneberger and Blaire H. O'Brien, argued that Ortiz had probable cause to bring the case to prosecutors, based on Leonard's claims, and that he had no malice against Johnson. The attorneys did not argue that Ortiz's testimony was truthful, only that the detective did not initiate prosecution or decide whether to charge Johnson, that the false statements were not important to the question of guilt, and therefore the detective had the right to immunity.

Lawyers for Ortiz and Brinkema cited the 2012 Supreme Court case of Rehberg v. Pablo, in which a prosecutor's investigator falsely testified three times before a grand jury, resulting in three indictments, all of which were dismissed. The high court ruled that witnesses should have absolute immunity to avoid fear of retaliation lawsuits for their testimony, and noted that witnesses who commit perjury can be criminally prosecuted.

Brinkema said there was no claim that Ortiz pressured prosecutors to charge Johnson or that he "exceeded the prosecutor's will by presenting materially false evidence or omitting exculpatory evidence." He noted that the grand jury was able to hear from Johnson, as well as Ortiz and Leonard, and that "he was in a position to present this information to the body before he decided to indict him."

For 20 years, Kevin Cincotta defended Johnson, saying he had not killed Cincotta's mother. But after meeting with Ortiz and seeing the Arlington police evidence, he changed his mind and testified against Johnson at trial.

“I wish Detective Ortiz had countersued him or asked for sanctions against him,” Kevin Cincotta said. "That would have been a small measure of justice."

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