Former Intelligence Officer Gets Life in Ex-Wife's Death
Saturday, June 24, 2006
As he was about to be sentenced to life in prison yesterday in the kidnapping and slaying of his ex-wife, Jay E. Lentz turned and faced the prosecutors who had pursued the case for more than five years -- through Lentz's conviction, the reversal of that conviction, a second trial and a bitter dispute about tainted evidence.
The former naval intelligence officer called them "the persecuting attorneys." In a rambling 40-minute monologue, Lentz quoted from the Bible, compared government lawyers to the devil and labeled members of the prosecution team "the liar, the witch and the weasel."
He reserved special ire for Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Mellin, who sat in the second row, chatting with the family of Lentz's former wife, Doris. She disappeared in 1996, and her body has not been found. In March, a federal jury in Alexandria convicted Lentz in her slaying, earning him yesterday's mandatory life term.
A federal judge accused Mellin of planting evidence during Lentz's first trial in 2003. An appellate court later threw out the finding about Mellin, but it was clear yesterday that the unusual venom between defendant and prosecutor had not abated.
Lentz stared at Mellin, called him "Mellin-head" and described him as "the liar . . . who planted the banned evidence." Mellin stared back impassively. Lentz -- wearing a ragged white T-shirt and striped prison pants, his eyes rimmed red -- alternately cried while describing his difficult childhood, asked people to pray for Doris Lentz's family and shook his fists when condemning what he called the corruption in the legal system.
He also asserted his innocence, implying at one moment that Doris Lentz had simply fled but admitting at others that she had been killed. "It's sad that Doris Faye Lentz has been missing for 10 years now. I hope she will be found soon, and Jay Lentz can go home," said Lentz, who later said that prosecutors "have a murder, but you don't have a body, you don't have a motive. You don't have me anywhere."
Mellin declined to respond to Lentz's accusations.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said he is "extremely proud of the prosecutors in this case and the professional way in which they conducted themselves. They should hold their heads high because a very bad man is going to spend the rest of his life in jail."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Haynes said at the hearing that Lentz "is a man who with a horrific degree of calculation first killed his wife and then tried to kill witnesses. For 10 years now, the family of Doris Lentz has suffered from their loss, and for 10 years Jay Lentz has deprived them of even the smallest comfort of knowing where the body is."
Judge T. S. Ellis III then pronounced the life sentence, saying he rejected "categorically any accusations of corruption by the prosecution."
"It is an appropriate sentence in view of the horrific nature of this crime," Ellis said.
Defense attorneys said they will appeal. "We'll just keep battling like we've battled the government for five years," said one of the attorneys, Frank Salvato.
The case of U.S. v. Jay Lentz has indeed coursed through the legal system since he was arrested in 2001. The government said Lentz had lured Doris Lentz from her Arlington County home in April 1996 to his house in Fort Washington. He used the pretense of picking up their daughter, Julia, then 4, who actually was in Indiana visiting his parents. Then, prosecutors said, Jay Lentz killed Doris Lentz and disposed of the body. He later joined Julia in Indiana.
A federal jury in July 2003 convicted Lentz of kidnapping resulting in Doris Lentz's death but declined to sentence him to death. That verdict was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, who said prosecutors had failed to prove that a kidnapping had taken place as defined by federal law.
Three jurors then came forward and said they had viewed evidence they weren't supposed to see -- two of Doris Lentz's day planners, which had mysteriously shown up in the jury room. Lee had ruled much of the material in them inadmissible. The planners contained material that included Doris Lentz's notes about threatening phone calls Jay Lentz allegedly had made to her.
The case then took an even more extraordinary turn: Lee accused Mellin, at the time the lead prosecutor, of deliberately planting the day planners in the jury room. The battle reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, which in September 2004 threw out Lee's finding about Mellin, saying the judge made "a rather broad leap" without evidence.
The appeals court reinstated Lentz's conviction but ordered a new trial because jurors had seen the disputed materials. The court took the unusual step of removing Lee from the case, and Mellin was not on the prosecution team for the retrial.
The retrial included yet another twist: Prosecutors presented a taped jailhouse phone conversation between Lentz and Salvato in which Lentz said a "hit guy" was on his way to the jail because he needed witnesses to disappear. Salvato immediately warned Lentz that such a statement would destroy him at his retrial.
When he was convicted a second time, Lentz erupted in court: "No, no! Reconsider!" he screamed at the jury.