Man's Sentence for Sexual Assault of Daughter Voided After His Death

James L. Bevel died two months after he was sentenced to 15 years for sexual assaulting his daughter.
James L. Bevel died two months after he was sentenced to 15 years for sexual assaulting his daughter. (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The sexual assault conviction of a well-known civil rights leader is about to be erased from the books because of a little-known aspect of criminal law -- and the man's death.

The man is James L. Bevel, a 71-year-old former Loudoun County resident. He died last December, two months after a judge imposed a 15-year sentence for repeatedly having sex with his daughter, but also after his attorney had filed an appeal. The law in federal court, and most states, is clear: If a defendant dies while his appeal is pending, the entire case is dismissed as if it had never happened.

The most publicized example of "abatement" occurred in 2006, when Enron executive Kenneth L. Lay died about a month after his conviction on numerous counts of securities fraud, before he had been sentenced. The trial judge in Houston threw out the case and also any request for restitution through the criminal case.

In Fairfax, a 2006 murder conviction was quietly thrown out in 2008 when the defendant, Samuel K. Hamlett, 52, died while the case was on appeal. Hamlett stabbed his friend Lynda Meagher, 41, to death, admitted it in a videotaped confession and was serving a 30-year sentence.

The idea behind abatement is that a case being appealed isn't final. The defendant could still be cleared upon a higher court's review.

"I think it makes common sense," said Samuel J. Buffone, a Washington lawyer who successfully argued to have Lay's conviction vacated. "If the defendant hasn't had the right to challenge it on appeal, it really is not final."

Prosecutors in Loudoun disagree.

"Voiding this conviction on a technical and archaic legal theory" harms Bevel's victim "by asserting that our system is one that is willing to trample on the rights of victims in order to assert a foolish principle," said James Plowman, the commonwealth's attorney of Loudoun County. "I am surprised that the Court of Appeals would force our Circuit Court to hold this hearing and thus re-victimize those already offended."

Chevara Orrin, one of Bevel's daughters, said Tuesday she was shocked by the news of the case's dismissal. She has said that she was abused by Bevel, but he was charged only with abusing one other daughter.

"It almost feels like, from beyond the grave, he still haunts us," Orrin said. "To reopen this, after everyone has spent so much time and effort trying to heal, it's just disturbing. It's very disheartening that our justice system works this way."

A hearing on the abatement is set for Thursday in Loudoun Circuit Court.

In federal courts, the issue of abatement has been settled since a Supreme Court ruling in 1971. Most, but not all, states have adopted similar precedents, although Virginia case law is largely silent, setting up Bevel's case as a possible trailblazer.

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