A dozen federal prosecutors, several of them among the highest-ranking in the U.S. attorney's office, packed an Alexandria courtroom yesterday for a routine hearing in a kidnapping case.
The unusual show of force reflected the highly charged history of U.S. v. Jay E. Lentz, which has included Lentz's conviction in the death of his former wife, the overturning of that conviction, a bitter dispute over a judge's finding that the lead prosecutor planted evidence and the overturning of that finding.
Yesterday, the saga that began with Lentz's arrest in April 2001 started anew. For the first time since a federal appeals court granted Lentz a new trial, the key players assembled for a hearing, and a judge set that trial for Jan. 31.
On one side of the courtroom sat Lentz, a former naval intelligence officer, in gray prison garb. On the other was Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Mellin, who was accused -- and then exonerated -- of planting unadmitted evidence in the jury room during Lentz's trial last year. Neither spoke during the hearing.
A federal jury in July 2003 convicted Lentz of kidnapping and killing Doris Lentz, 31, of Arlington, who disappeared in April 1996 after telling friends that she was going to her ex-husband's home in Fort Washington. Her blood-spattered car was found a week later in Southeast Washington.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee then took the unprecedented step in a federal capital case of throwing out the verdict, saying prosecutors failed to prove that a kidnapping, as defined by federal law, took place. That was followed by another rare development: Three jurors came forward and said they had viewed two day planners belonging to Doris Lentz that they weren't supposed to see.
The planners, which had mysteriously shown up in the jury room, contained material that included Doris's notes about threatening phone calls Jay Lentz allegedly had made to her.
In January, Lee issued a ruling that accused Mellin of deliberately and recklessly planting the materials. He said that Mellin waved one of the planners in his closing argument and that his testimony in the hearing on the matter was "less than candid."
The ruling triggered an extraordinary battle, in which prosecutors defended Mellin and accused Lee of bias. Mellin at one point suggested that defense attorneys may have tried to frame him.
In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit threw out Lee's finding about Mellin, saying the judge made "a rather broad leap" without evidence and based on "clearly erroneous" logic.
The appeals court, which took the rare step of removing the judge from the case, also reinstated Lentz's conviction, ruling that the government had proved the key legal point that Jay Lentz had "held" his former wife.
But the three-judge panel ordered a new trial for Lentz because jurors had seen the disputed materials.
At yesterday's hearing, defense attorneys said they plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up whether Lentz's conviction should have been reinstated. In the meantime, they asked U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III to delay setting a trial date. Ellis was chosen by the court's computerized random assignment system to handle the retrial.
Defense attorneys also are asking that the retrial be in Richmond instead of Alexandria because of the intensive publicity. Ellis has yet to rule, and he indicated yesterday that the Jan. 31 trial date is tentative.
Prosecutors have predicted that that 4th Circuit ruling would bode well for them at the new trial. But in a potential blow to the government, Ellis said yesterday that rulings Lee made, which excluded some key prosecution evidence, were likely "cast in stone."
That evidence included a statement that Doris Lentz had attributed to Jay Lentz, in which he allegedly said, "If O.J. Simpson can get away with it, so can I."