By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 7:01 PM
Virginia's third attempt to impose the death penalty on Alfredo R. Prieto, convicted of three murders and suspected of four others, began Tuesday in Fairfax County, with Prieto's defense team apparently abandoning its claim that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for capital punishment.
Prieto, 44, faces a death sentence in California for the 1990 rape and shooting of a 15-year-old girl. His appeals have lasted 18 years with no end in sight, so when he was linked by DNA to a 1988 double homicide near Reston, Fairfax prosecutors decided to extradite him and try to complete his legal process in Virginia.
Prieto's first trial in Fairfax, in 2007, ended in a mistrial. His second, in 2008, ended in a conviction and death sentence. But the Virginia Supreme Court last year ordered that the sentencing process be repeated because the jury's verdict form wasn't complete.
So both sides were faced with the task of convening a jury that won't decide guilt. Rather, it will determine only whether Prieto should die for the rape and murder of Rachael A. Raver, 22, and the murder of her boyfriend, Warren H. Fulton III, 22, in a vacant lot.
Picking a death penalty jury is an arduous task, involving screening potential jurors in small groups for their opinions on capital punishment. The case required 11 days of voir dire, days that often lasted until 8 p.m.
On Tuesday, 16 jurors were chosen: nine men and seven women. Four of the 16 will be alternates. They have been told that Prieto has been convicted of the capital murder of Raver and Fulton as well as the slaying of Yvette Woodruff in California.
In his opening statement, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh told jurors that DNA linked Prieto to the May 1988 rape and slaying of Veronica "Tina" Jefferson in Arlington County, a case that Arlington prosecutors dropped after the Fairfax convictions.
The jury was not told of two other homicides recently linked to Prieto. Last week, Prieto's attorneys disclosed that cold case detectives in Riverside County, Calif., had used DNA to link Prieto to another unsolved double homicide there in 1990. The jury also was not told that Prince William authorities suspect Prieto of another killing there in 1989, before he moved from Arlington to California.
Prieto has not been charged with the slaying in Riverside or Prince William.
Dressed in a suit and tie that barely concealed the gang tattoos on his neck, Prieto answered questions from Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows in perfect English.
Morrogh wasted no time telling the jury that although the Reston case dated to 1988, "there are people sitting here now who have waited 22 years to come into this room and tell you of their loss."
He said police didn't know how Raver and Fulton, after leaving a sports bar in Washington, "crossed paths with a heartless predator, somewhere in the dark night."
Neither Raver nor Fulton lived near Reston. But in a lot just off Hunter Mill Road, near the Dulles Toll Road, Prieto shot Fulton in the back, "then shot Rachael in the back, turned her over and raped her as she lay dying," Morrogh said.
In Prieto's first two trials, defense attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro presented experts and evidence that Prieto was mentally retarded. But in his opening statement Tuesday, Shapiro never mentioned retardation, although he said Prieto's IQ had been measured at 71, just above Virginia's legal standard for retardation.
Instead, Shapiro told the story of Prieto's upbringing in war-torn El Salvador, with bodies strewn about the streets and his grandfather shot to death with Prieto nearby. He said experts would testify that "frequent exposure to trauma in childhood affects the development of the brain. Particularly trauma that comes from being in a war zone."
Shapiro concluded: "Does Mr. Prieto need to be punished? Of course. That's a no-brainer. But it's simply not necessary to kill him. Putting him in a concrete box for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate sentence."