Lentz Case Sends Chill Through Federal Courthouse
In Alexandria, Spiraling Accusations of Planted Evidence in Murder Trial Spawn a Storm of Tension
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2004; Page B01
Gene Butt grimaces each time she walks into the federal courthouse in Alexandria and sees the inscription etched in stone above a sleepy-looking marble tortoise being outrun by a hare: "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied."
"I was struck by the irony," said Butt, whose daughter, Doris Lentz, 31, of Arlington hopped into her car one spring day eight years ago and was never heard from again. "Doris has been denied justice for eight years."
Inside that courthouse, Doris Lentz's ex-husband was convicted in the killing. The conviction didn't stand, and now the question of who killed Doris Lentz and disposed of her body has been almost forgotten and replaced by a mystery of an entirely different kind: Who planted disputed evidence in the jury room at the death penalty trial of Jay E. Lentz?
The judge says he knows exactly whodunit: the lead prosecutor in the case. The prosecutor and his boss have fired back, calling the judge biased and his finding baseless. Now the defense team is in the middle of the fray, with the prosecutor saying that one of Lentz's attorneys could be the culprit.
The swirling accusations have rocked a federal courthouse known nationally as the "rocket docket" for its precision-like disposition of important cases. Meanwhile, with his conviction overturned and the possibility of a new trial, Lentz marks time in jail -- three years since his arrest -- almost as an afterthought.
With reputations and careers on the line, the tension at the courthouse, which in many ways retains a small-town atmosphere despite its big-city profile, is palpable. It can be as subtle as a frosty exchange in the courtroom between a prosecutor and defense attorney. Courthouse employees eagerly spin the latest theory about how the disputed evidence got into the jury room and marvel at how twisted the whole affair has become. It has even been suggested that a staff member could have accidentally been to blame.
And there are awkward encounters, which is to be expected when all of the central players -- the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the judge -- are clustered close together in one building and anyone can bump into anyone in the elevator.
"This is sort of like the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said one lawyer. "Everyone at the courthouse is trying not to focus on it, but it's kind of hard not to."
The Pivotal Moment
Locked in a sixth-floor room at the federal courthouse last summer, jurors in Jay Lentz's trial on a charge of kidnapping resulting in his ex-wife's death were struggling to reach a verdict.
Deadlocked and dejected after four days of deliberations, they decided to examine the evidence cart, where they spied a burgundy day planner and small black pocket calendar that had belonged to the victim. Suddenly, whispers of disbelief spread through the cramped room.
"Oh, my God," said one juror, prompting others to get up from the mahogany table covered with candy wrappers and Post-it notes and crowd around. Reading over each other's shoulders, they recoiled at what they saw: the last words of Doris Lentz, detailing alleged abuse by her ex-husband.
"All of the sudden, we were given the golden journals that had the answer," said Karen Plante, the jury forewoman.
Guilty, the jury said.
But that pivotal moment that several jurors said led to the conviction of the 45-year-old former naval intelligence officer also turned the case and ensured Lentz at least a fresh start and, ultimately, perhaps, his freedom.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
His conviction in the disappearance of his ex-wife, Doris, overturned, Jay E. Lentz still sits in jail, awaiting a possible new trial.
Clarification: A May 10 article about the case of Jay E. Lentz may have left the impression that prosecutors and defense attorneys trade sentencing recommendations for such favors as moving a hearing date. That does not happen, prosecutors and lawyers say.