Eleanor Mellon Dunham has tried to wipe the brutal memory of her sister's murder from her mind. She tries to carry on with her life: She has children, a husband, a home. But the death of Connie Mellon has taken hold of her; she says it won't let go of her until the man who has confessed to the killing is finally brought to trial.
Constance Mellon was found dead in her Old Town Alexandria house on Oct. 7, 1980. Three days earlier, she had been raped, bound and shot in the head. Mellon had just moved to Alexandria from New York to work for Time-Life Books. Unpacked boxes still filled the 36-year-old publishing executive's fashionable home.
For the past four years, Frank Weston, the man charged with killing Connie Mellon, has been held in a Pittsburgh jail cell waiting to be sentenced for a murder he committed there. Until he is sentenced, Pittsburgh prosecutors say he won't be extradited to Virginia to face the other charges.
Dunham has written and called every official she thought could help her speed up the process. Her campaign has been lonely and frustrating, consuming thousands of dollars and much of her time since 1981.
"My family thinks my approach to this is pathological," she said. "They want it behind us; but after five horrible years, how can you just walk away and forget it?"
The Mellon slaying appeared to be without motive, and Alexandria police had no suspects until August 1981, when ballistics tests revealed that the gun used by Weston to kill a clerk in a Pittsburgh shoe store on Oct. 4, 1980 was used to kill Mellon the day before.
An Alexandria grand jury indicted Weston for murder on Aug. 3, 1981, and the commonwealth's attorney has been trying to bring him to trial ever since. Nearly four years ago -- on April 16, 1981 -- he was found guilty of the Pittsburgh murder, but because the judge has not sentenced him, Pennsylvania has refused to give him up. Two weeks ago, Pennsylvania's attorney general informed Dunham that until the case in Pittsburgh is resolved, they cannot let Weston go.
So Weston, 31, sits in Allegheny County Jail, waiting to be sentenced. For dozens of people involved in his cases in Pittsburgh and in Virginia -- police officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, even the judge -- it has been an epic of frustration, a signal of the criminal justice system buckling under the weight of bureaucracy and indecision.
"I've never seen anything like it in my career," said William E. Brennan, who prosecuted Weston for the Allegheny County district attorney's office. "The evidence in this case was so overwhelming. The confession was blatant. He talked in detail about both murders; he couldn't wait to talk. No one could have thought he would be sitting there today. Of course people are upset; you have to be shocked by it."
In Virginia, there is growing skepticism that Weston will ever stand trial for the Alexandria slaying because Weston may succeed in his attempts to win a new trial in the Pittsburgh case if the judge there rules that his initial counsel was ineffective.
Weston testified in the trial that he obtained the gun he used to kill Robert Walker, the store clerk, in the Washington area. Weston tied up Walker in a basement of the store and shot him in the head after robbing him. Weston testified during the trial that while the clerk was dying in the basement he went upstairs and sold a pair of shoes to a nurse who had entered the store.
Many people familiar with both cases say Judge Henry R. Smith Jr. of the Court of Common Pleas, who presided at the trial, bears much of the responsibility for the delays in sentencing. According to administrative records in Allegheny County Court, Smith has more people awaiting post-verdict sentencing -- 113 as of March 18, according to his records -- than any other judge at the court.
Police officers and trial lawyers in Pittsburgh criticize Smith for indecisiveness in capital cases.
Smith says that is unfair. "The volume of my work is mind-boggling," he said. "The testimony is so voluminous, and with the pressure of daily cases I can't say when we will go forward."
Weston's lawyer argued during the trial that his client had been drinking at the time of the killing and was not in control of his actions. Because it was a bench trial, held without a jury, it was Smith who found Weston guilty of first-degree murder, but Smith said that a jury should be impaneled to decide whether Weston should be sentenced to life in prison or receive the death penalty.
When Smith refused to sentence Weston himself, the case went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which on Sept. 21, 1983, overruled him and ordered him to sentence Weston.
"It's all Judge Smith," said Ronald B. Freeman, the Pittsburgh homicide detective who took Weston's initial confession and helped make the link to the Alexandria slaying. "This has been the most frustrating experience of my life. Why can one man impose his values and cause justice to stop completely? The police have strict rules, and we follow them. If we don't, people are back on the street. But where are the standards for the court system?"
Smith acknowledged that the case has taken an unusually long time to resolve, but he said that his personal views have played no role in his decisions.
"I won't discuss my views on the death penalty," the judge said last week. "But I did not want to impose it myself. I am only one man. I don't think one man should be made to determine life or death."
Asked why no sentence has been imposed in the year and a half since the Supreme Court ruled, Smith said that the defendant has charged that his original counsel was incompetent. The lawyer, Frank E. Reilly, has since disappeared. Smith has issued a bench warrant for his arrest to appear as a witness, but Reilly has not been found.
Virginia law enforcement officials, eager to prosecute Weston, have watched these developments with mounting exasperation.
"I'm sitting here with my hands in my pockets, and there is nothing I can do about it," said John E. Kloch, commonwealth's attorney in Alexandria. "All roads lead to the judge in this case, and the judge is the least subject to remedy. Every right is supposed to have a remedy -- you learn that in law school -- but we built this system without one."
Kloch has said that he would seek the death penalty if Weston is convicted in Mellon's slaying; but if Weston is sentenced first in Pittsburgh, Weston would probably have to serve that sentence first. In both Virginia and Pennsylvania, the minimum penalty for first-degree murder is life imprisonment; both also have death penalties. "I just want to know he won't ever be back on the streets," said Dunham, the sister who has fought to have Weston extradited since the day he was indicted. "Of course I've become bitter. It has become a barrier in my family. We can't discuss it, and we can't stop grieving until it is resolved. We know she's dead, but we can't move on until it's over."
There is also frustration in Pittsburgh. Jail officials do not want to continue to hold Weston because Allegheny County has recently been hit with a sharply worded federal court order to reduce crowding.
"What can we do?" asked Kenneth J. Benson, the assistant district attorney who is now handling the case involving the slain shoe clerk.
"We have a convicted murderer here, and we can't risk letting him go," Benson said. "The area of law that involves transfer of prisoners to other states is a mine field for prosecutors. The extradition act doesn't contemplate transferring a person in mid-trial, and as screwy as it sounds, he is in mid-trial."
If Pennsylvania were to send Weston to Virginia, and in the meantime Weston won a new trial in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County would have only 120 days to bring the new trial under the state's speedy trial law, regardless of how long the Virginia proceedings took. "We just can't take the chance of giving away a murder conviction," said Benson.
For his part, Weston, a tall, thin man who has lived within the 19th century romanesque walls of the Allegheny County Jail since 1980, has no desire to leave. He said he could not get a fair trial in Virginia.
Weston said that he has decided not to talk as much about the slaying in Virginia as he did when he was arrested. At one point he was calling Alexandria investigators and Freeman, the Pittsburgh detective, so often that Judge Smith, acting on a defense request, ordered police in Pittsburgh to stop accepting Weston's calls. Police have never determined why Weston, who lived in Pittsburgh before the slayings, was in Alexandria.
"I can't tell you what happened that night in Virginia," Weston said last week. "I'm already in enough trouble. Poison passes through my lips. Man is sin, we got to realize that. I always wonder why there is so much sin in this world, but man can't help but sin."
As Weston's lawyer prepares her final brief in support of a new trial, those involved in the case have taken on a fatalistic approach to seeing him sentenced for the slaying.
"In some ways, the case has been fascinating for me," said Freeman. "But I am embarrassed that we have no result. This thing is like a bottle floating at sea. There is no control. It's just adrift, and who knows where it will go or when?"