Prieto trial stops for two weeks

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 7:20 PM

Fairfax County's five-year effort to obtain the death penalty for serial killer Alfredo Prieto took another tortured turn Thursday, when the judge hearing the case reluctantly stopped the trial for two weeks because a key defense witness is unavailable.

Prieto has been convicted of three murders, charged with a fourth and is suspected in three more. In 2008, at his second trial in Fairfax, a jury convicted him of the murders of Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III and sentenced him to death, but the Virginia Supreme Court last year ordered the sentencing to be redone.

The third Fairfax proceeding is now in its sixth week, with the defense building its case that Prieto should not be executed because of the trauma he suffered as a child growing up in war-torn El Salvador in the 1970s.

An expert on the impact of war on children has testified, as did a nun who worked with a missionary and three nuns killed in El Salvador in 1980. Members of Prieto's family, including his mother, who fled the country in 1975 and brought her children to California in 1981, also testified.

Culminating the defense case was supposed to be a forensic psychologist from Texas, appointed by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows at the defense team's request. The psychologist has written a report about Prieto's mental health and defense lawyers hope his testimony will convince the jury to spare Prieto's life.

But last month, the psychologist's wife was diagnosed with cancer, and last week he informed the lawyers that he could not appear in Fairfax as scheduled. In a phone call with Bellows in court Thursday, the psychologist said he could not be fully prepared, or be emotionally steady, before Nov. 1.

Neither side wanted to postpone the trial. Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh noted that Raver's mother had traveled to Fairfax and testified even as she is currently undergoing chemotherapy for her own cancer. Morrogh offered to travel to Texas and videotape the psychologist's testimony, which the psychologist declined.

The defense said it needed the psychologist, and Bellows said the trial would stop after Thursday, when all other defense witnesses were done, and resume in two weeks.

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