Court Overturns Serial Killer's Death Sentence Over Verdict Form
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Virginia's highest court Friday overturned the death sentence of a serial killer convicted in the 1988 slayings of a young couple in Fairfax County, ruling that a defective verdict form did not properly allow jurors the choice of sending him to prison for life.
The Virginia Supreme Court decision doesn't change the guilty verdicts against Alfred R. Prieto, 43, in the killings of Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton, 22-year-old sweethearts shot in a partly wooded lot near Reston. But a new jury will have to determine whether Prieto deserves to remain on Virginia's death row or whether he should serve life without a chance of parole.
For the victims' families, the decision brings the painful possibility of returning to a courtroom yet again. Prieto's first trial in Fairfax ended in a mistrial, and his death sentences came after a second trial.
Veronica Raver, Rachel's mother, said she is ready to take the witness stand again to ask a jury to vote to execute Prieto. Her daughter had graduated from George Washington University the spring before she was killed.
"To me, life is a gift, and he doesn't deserve that gift," Raver said in a telephone interview from her home in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. "I'm not for the death penalty in every case, but some just deserve it. Some people are just plain evil, and he's evil."
Prieto, who has a long history of violence, is on California's death row for the 1990 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. He is a suspect in the 1988 rape and murder of Veronica "Tina" Jefferson in Arlington County. He also is a suspect in a 1989 killing in Prince William County.
Fulton and Raver were last seen leaving a sports bar in the District shortly after midnight on Dec. 4, 1988. Their bodies were found two days later near Hunter Mill Road. Police think Fulton was on his knees when he was shot in the back. Raver had been raped.
The case went unsolved for years, until a cold DNA hit produced Prieto's name as a match to the DNA from semen at the crime scene.
After listening to evidence in a trial last year, a Fairfax jury deliberated eight hours over two days before deciding that Prieto should die for his crimes. But the Virginia Supreme Court found two flaws in the verdict form, a standard template in the state code, that was used by that jury.
Virginia law requires that a jury find one or both of two so-called aggravating factors -- that the crimes were vile and depraved or that the criminal is a future danger -- to send someone to the death chamber. The court ruled that the verdict form did not make clear that a jury must unanimously agree on one or both of those factors before recommending a death sentence. Instead, they said, the form suggested that some jurors could find Prieto a danger to society while others could agree on the vileness of the crimes.
The form, the court ruled, also did not make clear that a jury could find that one or both aggravating factors were present and still choose to spare a defendant's life.
"The Virginia Supreme Court is saying that if you are going to seek death, even in a conservative state, the law controls, and the law says if jurors find one or two aggravating factors, they still have the right to impose life instead of death," said Peter D. Greenspun, a Fairfax lawyer who represented Prieto at trial and has handled numerous capital cases.
Legal experts said it is unlikely that the case will have a significant impact on Virginia's other death row cases. Judges can tailor jury forms, so the standard form is not always used. In other cases, inmates might have exhausted their appeals. Still, legal experts said, the Virginia General Assembly probably will alter the form.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said prosecutors and defense attorneys are scheduled to return to court Friday to set a date to continue the case.
"We sought the death sentence and the jury returned it," Morrogh said. "Now it's just a question of, will another jury impose a death sentence? We will do our best to make sure justice is done."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.