Was murder of Montgomery County transgender woman a hate crime?

- A man arrested in the murder of a transgender woman in Gaithersburg was scheduled to be in court on Monday, but that hearing didn't happen.

Montgomery County police and the state's attorney’s office are still looking into whether this was a hate crime.

Under Maryland law, it is extremely difficult to prove a murder was a hate crime. But the suspect in this case is already facing the maximum penalty -- life in prison without parole plus 20 years.

Rico LeBlond, 20, was arrested on first-degree murder charges. Now the question is whether he will face additional charges for a hate crime.

“In my heart I feel like it is,” the victim’s uncle Jeron Jackson told FOX 5. “That's what it was.”

According to charging documents, the victim, DeAndre Smith, a transgender woman who went by the name of Zella Ziona, recently approached the suspect in front of his friends at Lakeforest Mall and "began acting flamboyantly which greatly embarrassed LeBlond.”

“We're taking it one day at a time, but it's hard,” said Sade Thomas, the victim’s cousin. “The last few days have been hard.”

Ziona's family said the victim was loyal and happy and they are heartbroken by the details of the murder.

Detectives believe the victim was assaulted with a stick in order to lure her into the alleyway where she was shot multiple times.

Court documents also say that when the murder happened, the suspect had a monster mask covering the lower half of his face. But a witness recognized the man as LeBlond because his eyes and hair were exposed, and because he was wearing the same clothes when they bumped into him a couple of hours prior in the same vicinity.

Ziona's family is convinced the murder was a hate crime.

“He had a lot of friends and a lot of family that loved him a lot no matter who he was,” said Thomas.

We are told LeBlond was separated from other inmates for his own protection. His bond review hearing scheduled for Monday did not happen and he was actually scheduled to begin trial for a different criminal case as LeBlond has quite a long rap sheet.

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