Retrial Begins In Rape, Murder
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Defense lawyers took a different approach as the retrial of Alfredo R. Prieto on two murder charges began yesterday in Fairfax County, choosing this time not to tell the jury that their 42-year-old client is on death row for a slaying in California.
A Fairfax jury convicted Prieto last summer in the 1988 rape and murder of Rachael A. Raver and the murder of her boyfriend, Warren H. Fulton III, near Reston, but a mistrial was declared after a juror said he was pressured into finding Prieto guilty. When picking that jury, Prieto's attorneys had disclosed his prior conviction, hoping to reassure jurors that an acquittal or life sentence would not result in Prieto's release.
In addition to the two Fairfax slayings, Prieto is charged with the rape and murder of Veronica "Tina" Jefferson, 24, in Arlington County in May 1988. His conviction stems from the 1990 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Ontario, Calif.
California's lengthy appeals process has kept Prieto on death row for 15 years with no end in sight. When a DNA hit in 2005 matched Prieto to both Northern Virginia murder scenes, prosecutors decided to extradite him in hopes of getting a conviction, sentence and execution before California could execute him. Frustrated California prosecutors did not object.
Many in the defense bar questioned the wisdom, and cost, of trying someone already sentenced to death. Prosecutors declared the need to achieve justice quickly for the Virginia victims. Court records indicate that the cost of the first trial was about $400,000, including defense lawyer fees of about $214,000 and $73,000 for a defense mental health expert.
Since the first trial, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. has retired, but he agreed to try the case again -- for free -- with his successor, newly elected Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. That put the same four lawyers, the two prosecutors and veteran defense lawyers Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, back on the case for the retrial.
The defense again intends to prove that Prieto is mentally retarded and thus avoid the death penalty if he is convicted, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that retarded defendants may not be executed.
But Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows, newly appointed to the case for the retrial, will not create a third "mental retardation phase" of the trial for the jury to resolve the issue, as was done in the first trial. Instead, retardation evidence will be part of the penalty phase, although Bellows told the 12 jurors and three alternates yesterday they will need to decide the issue before moving on to whether to impose capital punishment.
In his opening statement yesterday, Horan told the jury how the young couple were slain almost two decades ago. Raver and Fulton, both 22, left a District sports bar sometime after midnight Dec. 4, 1988, and their bodies were found near Hunter Mill Road on Dec. 6, 1988. Both had been shot once in the back. Raver had been raped, probably as she lay dying, Horan said. The chance that someone else left the semen that matched Prieto's DNA was one in 6.5 billion, he said.
Shapiro, in response, conceded that Prieto might have been at the scene. "The real issue in the case, though," Shapiro said, "is what did he do, and, ultimately, was he the killer?"
Shapiro noted that no murder weapon was found, no witnesses were located, no confessions were made and nothing links Prieto to the shootings.
And, Shapiro asked: "Why would a single small man" -- Prieto is about 5 feet 6 -- "bent on rape abduct a woman accompanied by a man?" He noted that Fulton was much larger and that both Fulton and Raver were athletes.
"Why would such a man take these two folks on a 20-mile odyssey" from the District to Reston, Shapiro asked the jury. "How was a small man able to control these two the entire time? . . . If the commonwealth is giving you nothing but possibilities, then it's your duty not to convict."
The capital murder trial is expected to last about two months.