About 40 years ago, the judge who ran the federal courthouse in Alexandria decided that justice was being dispensed too slowly for his liking. He vowed to speed things up.
Next thing most lawyers knew, their cases were flying through the docket. The judge, Albert V. Bryan Jr., would rule on the spot when motions were argued and, the story goes, could try an entire case in an afternoon.
"The old joke used to be that in front of Judge Bryan, the only grounds for a delay were a death in the family -- your own,'' said defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon Jr.
The courthouse today reflects the influence of Bryan, whose legacy gave Alexandria national fame as the "rocket docket." But in recent years, some of the building's highest-profile cases -- especially the prosecutions of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and former naval intelligence officer Jay E. Lentz -- have seemed to drag on endlessly.
Nearly three years after Moussaoui was indicted, the trial has been delayed three times, and a new trial date has not been set amid a blizzard of national security arguments and appeals. Lentz, convicted in the death of his former wife but recently granted a new trial by a federal appeals court, has been jailed since April 2001.
Is the rocket docket losing its sparkle? Or are the Moussaoui and Lentz cases so unusual that they would test the patience of any judges?
According to numbers provided by the court, fans of Judge Bryan needn't worry: The courthouse remains very fast indeed. The statistics show that the Eastern District of Virginia ranks first nationally out of the 94 U.S. District Courts in the speed with which it brings civil cases to trial, and eighth on the criminal side. The rankings have remained steady since 1997.
Lawyers say the tortoise-like pace of the Moussaoui and Lentz cases reflects their complications. Both were death penalty cases, which has added months of motions, and both presented extraordinary issues. For Moussaoui, accused of conspiracy in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the central question is whether the government can seek to execute him while denying him access to key al Qaeda detainees he says can help clear him. A federal appeals court has twice ruled for the government.
Lentz, accused of kidnapping and killing Doris Lentz, whose body disappeared in 1996, was prosecuted under an infrequently used provision of federal kidnapping law. A jury convicted him last summer, but the judge threw out the conviction and a heated battle ensued over whether the jury had seen evidence that was never admitted in the case. An appeals court recently upheld the conviction but granted Lentz a new trial because of the disputed evidence.
"These are unique issues,'' said Philip J. Harvey, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the federal bar association, which publishes the Rocket Docket News, a newsletter. "If anybody thinks they're going to get two to three years in Alexandria in a regular case, they're going to be very surprised.''
But Harvey said that things still move slower in Alexandria than they did back in the days of Bryan, who took senior status in 1991. In one legendary story, lawyers say a defense lawyer who was not prepared to give opening arguments on the first day of a trial told Bryan that the lawyer who was prepared would arrive shortly -- as soon as his plane landed from New York.
"Call your first witness," the judge told the hapless lawyer.