Fairfax Jury Calls for Two Death Sentences
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
A Fairfax County jury told Alfredo R. Prieto yesterday that he should die for killing a young couple on a field near Reston nearly two decades ago. There were no witnesses to the crime, but prosecutors believe Warren H. Fulton III was on his knees when Prieto shot him in the back. Then Prieto shot Fulton's girlfriend, Rachael A. Raver, and raped her as she lay dying.
Virginia will now contend with California to see which would be the first to get Prieto, 42, to the death chamber. In 1992, Prieto was convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in Ontario, Calif., but his appeals could stretch nearly 10 more years. In Virginia, they could be exhausted in five.
The families of Fulton and Raver were in the courtroom yesterday to hear, at long last, the jury give its verdict: two death sentences. The victims were just 22 when their bodies were discovered Dec. 6, 1988, in a vacant lot along Hunter Mill Road. Raver had graduated the previous spring from George Washington University, and Fulton was a senior there and the captain of its varsity baseball team.
The jury deliberated eight hours over two days last week, then came back yesterday with a verdict after deliberating 45 minutes more. Prieto blinked rapidly as the death sentences were announced.
"I'm relieved and very happy, because justice has been done," said Veronica Raver, Rachel's mother.
The death sentences will be imposed or reduced to a life sentence without parole May 23 by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows. The trial was the longest in Fairfax, according to Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh.
The murder case caps the storied career of Robert F. Horan Jr., who retired last year after serving as chief prosecutor of Virginia's largest jurisdiction for 40 years. Prieto's first trial ended in a mistrial last summer, but Horan, 75, agreed to return and try the case with Morrogh, his former longtime deputy, without pay.
"The evidence called for it," Horan said of the jury's verdict, which also included 20 years on a grand-larceny charge for the theft of Raver's car.
On Feb. 6, the jury convicted Prieto of the two Fairfax slayings. To obtain a death sentence, prosecutors had to convince the jury that the crimes were vile and depraved or that Prieto posed a danger to society. To that end, prosecutors presented evidence of the May 1988 rape and shooting of Veronica Jefferson in Arlington County, to which Prieto was linked by DNA, as well as records of his convictions in California for wounding three people in a drive-by shooting in 1984 and the rape and murder of Yvette Woodruff in September 1990. Prieto has not been tried in Jefferson's slaying.
Prieto's attorneys, Jonathan Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun, tried to prove that Prieto was mentally retarded and thus ineligible for death under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. They presented Prieto's relatives from El Salvador, who described his difficult upbringing in a war-torn country, and several mental health experts testified that he was mentally retarded or brain damaged.
But Horan and Morrogh's mental health expert said Prieto is not retarded, and they presented his writings and conversations from jail to show that he is sound. Horan used his vast experience in confronting various mental health defenses over the years, including his knowledge of technical terms and diagnoses, to sharply cross-examine the defense experts.
The case for Prieto's guilt was made almost entirely on DNA. Police had no suspects after Raver's and Fulton's bodies were found, and police had many years of dead ends. Then, in 2005, while Prieto was on San Quentin State Prison's death row, his DNA was entered into a national database. It matched the semen on Raver's body as well as that left on Jefferson's body seven months earlier.
Using ballistic evidence and the placement of the bodies, Horan theorized that Fulton was shot first and that Raver then tried to escape. "She has to know she's going to be the next to die," Horan said. "And she runs, and he shoots her, and he rapes her while she dies. . . . It's depraved behavior, it is outrageously vile and it warrants the death penalty."
The jury could choose only the death penalty or life without parole. "Choosing life over death in this case," Shapiro told the jury, "if that's what you choose to do, doesn't mean you're excusing these crimes. It only means you understand that people are shaped by what they live through."
Shapiro touched on Prieto's upbringing, his many years in prison and the movie "The Shawshank Redemption." He recounted the biblical tale of Jesus interrupting the stoning of an adulterer, in which Jesus said, "He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
Horan flashed righteous indignation in his 10-minute rebuttal. "Members of the jury," he intoned, his voice rising, "the only stones in this case are the gravestones of Warren and Rachael and Veronica, the gravestones of the innocent victims of this defendant."
Staff writer Daniela Deane contributed to this report.