Caleb D. Hughes made his first appearance yesterday in Fairfax County Circuit Court to answer a charge that he abducted 5-year-old Melissa Brannen, who disappeared from a Christmas party at a Lorton apartment complex almost a year ago.
Hughes, who was indicted last week on a charge of abduction with the intent to defile, walked into the crowded courtroom and stood before Circuit Court Judge Thomas S. Kenny for his arraignment, where he entered a not guilty plea. Kenny appointed lawyer Peter D. Greenspun, who is president of the Fairfax Bar Association, to represent him.
Hughes, a slight man with a blond mustache, said nothing during the brief hearing, then returned to the Fairfax jail, where he will remain until his trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 28. No bond was set because Hughes is serving time for violating parole in an unrelated case.
If convicted of the abduction charge, he would face a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
Although Hughes was not charged in the Brannen case until last week, he has been considered a suspect since shortly after Melissa vanished last Dec. 3. Despite an extensive search by police and rescue workers and pleas from her family for the girl's return, she has not been found.
Television broadcasts of a home videotape of Melissa showing off a new dress captivated the Washington area, but no answers came.
Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said last week that his decision to charge Hughes with abduction rather than murder came with the growing reality that Melissa may never be seen again.
"It's coming up on a year, and the child has not been found," Horan said. "It's become more and more a nagging reality with each passing month. As time goes on, it becomes less and less a possibility that she will be found."
Horan said that if Melissa's body is discovered, it may be difficult to prosecute Hughes on a murder charge because of a recent Supreme Court ruling limiting the ability of prosecutors to use the same physical evidence in more than one criminal case against a defendant.
Horan has said that for the state to prosecute Hughes on a murder charge, it would have to prove where a slaying occurred. "A, we don't know whether she was killed," he said, "and B, we don't know where she was killed."
Horan said he could prove a case that Melissa was taken with some intention of "sexual debasement." He said the case against Hughes is circumstantial and essentially based on scientific evidence.
Sources have said that evidence includes what police believe is fur from the coat Melissa's mother was wearing. Police believe hair from the coat may have rubbed off on Melissa's clothing. Sources said other fiber evidence linked Hughes to the case.
Hughes, who had worked at the complex for three weeks, was seen talking to Melissa outside the party, sources said. He gave conflicting accounts of where he was during the two hours after she vanished.
Greenspun, Hughes's attorney, said yesterday it was too early to discuss any defense approach.
Several defense lawyers interviewed yesterday speculated about the defense strategies that might be used if the state relies mainly on the evidence sources have cited. They said the defense must try to discredit the scientific evidence with its own experts, argue that the government was out to close a case, and hope that the jury is not swayed by emotions.