The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Longtime Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. dies at 90

Mr. Horan handled nearly every high-profile case in Fairfax for 40 years, including D.C. sniper Malvo, CIA shootings, Melissa Brannen abduction

Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., right, and Mr. Horan's chief deputy Raymond Morrogh, arrive at the courthouse in Chesapeake, Va., for testimony in the Lee Boyd Malvo D.C. sniper trial in 2003.

Former Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who prosecuted virtually every high-profile criminal case in Virginia’s largest county for 40 years — from the “Roy Rogers murders” in 1976, to the abduction of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen in 1991, to the D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo in 2003 — died Friday at his home in the Clifton area. He was 90.

No cause of death was immediately known, his wife of 65 years, Monica Horan, said Saturday.

When Mr. Horan retired in 2007, at age 74, he was the longest serving prosecutor in Virginia history, though he was later surpassed by his friend and colleague in neighboring Prince William County, Paul B. Ebert. The annual award for the top prosecutor in the state is the Robert F. Horan Jr. Award, given by the state association of commonwealth’s attorneys he helped form. When the National District Attorneys Association created a lifetime achievement award in 2003, Mr. Horan was the first recipient.

“He was the best trial lawyer I ever saw,” Ebert said Saturday, noting they had worked together on the D.C. sniper case, in which Ebert prosecuted John Allen Muhammad and Mr. Horan handled Malvo. “He wanted to do what was right. He was somewhat a typical Marine, he wanted everyone to get in line and march. And he kept a lot of stuff in his head.”

Mr. Horan’s final case was the prosecution of serial killer Alfredo Prieto, who killed at least three people in Virginia and five more in California. When Prieto’s first trial in 2007 ended in a mistrial, the then-retired Mr. Horan helped lead the retrial as an unpaid special prosecutor and obtained two capital murder convictions. Prieto was executed in 2015.

Mr. Horan said in a 2007 interview with The Washington Post that he was retiring reluctantly, because his hearing was declining. “My only fear is I’ve known guys who loved what they were doing,” Mr. Horan said. “They hung it up and they were dead in a year.” Instead, Mr. Horan continued to come into the Fairfax prosecutor’s office regularly for years, where his successor Raymond F. Morrogh kept an office for him, as well as play golf frequently.

Mr. Horan was a powerful presence in the courtroom, typically sitting alone with only a notepad, no assistants or detectives next to him, delivering thundering closing arguments to juries with no notes. In the Malvo case, he told the jury, “This most reprehensible of killings should be called what it is. It is a capital killing under the terrorism statute. … Give him justice. Give him a conviction for the two capital murders that he committed.”

The jury did convict Malvo of capital murder, but then declined to impose the death penalty on the teenager, which Mr. Horan attributed to the case being concluded just days before Christmas.

“Bob was a person of integrity,” his wife said. “I also think he was honest with people, and he had a great sense of humor.” She said he did not suffer from any particular health condition, adding: “He always said he was going out feet first.”

Numerous alumni of Mr. Horan’s office went on to become judges, including five on the Fairfax bench, three in Loudoun County and one on the federal 4th Circuit appeals court. Four former assistants — Morrogh, James Plowman in Loudoun, James Fisher in Fauquier and Nate Green in James City County — went on to be elected chief prosecutors in their county.

“Bob Horan inspired generations of young assistant commonwealth’s attorneys,” Morrogh said. “Attorneys would come watch his cases and learn so much, or come to him and ask him how to try a case. His knowledge and passion for the law was unparalleled.”

“Being a young prosecutor in his office and watching him in court,” said former assistant prosecutor Penney Azcarate, now the chief judge of Fairfax circuit court, “the lessons I learned still resonate with me to this day. His ability to walk in with a legal pad and engage the jury was awe-inspiring. He made it look so easy and we all knew it wasn’t.”

Mr. Horan was born and raised in New Brunswick, N.J., graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland, then served in the Marine Corps, where he met his wife. He graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1961. He spent two years as a Fairfax assistant prosecutor, in between four years in private practice, then was appointed the county’s top prosecutor in March 1967, when Ralph G. Louk stepped down. He won election later that year, and only faced opposition once after 1975.

Fairfax was partly rural in the 1960s, but eventually boomed from a population of about 260,000 in the 1960s to more than 1 million in the 2000s. Mr. Horan expanded the office slowly, having only 22 assistants even as caseloads exploded, creating disquiet among defense attorneys who complained of trouble preparing their cases as a result. He also abided closely by Virginia’s then-restrictive court rules that allowed him to withhold police and witness reports from the defense, saying the defense wasn’t required to provide him anything.

He also never charged an officer with a crime for any on-duty shootings during his 40-year tenure, including a Prince George’s County officer who wrongly followed Prince Jones Jr. into Fairfax in 2000 and repeatedly shot him in the back.

“I’m proud of the fact they haven’t been charged,” Mr. Horan said in 2007. “It means they’re doing their jobs.” He did not take police shootings to a grand jury, saying he’d been elected chief prosecutor to make the tough calls.

One of Mr. Horan’s earliest high-profile trials involved the prosecution of James L. Breeden, who shot five people in the walk-in refrigerator of a Roy Rogers restaurant in the Landmark area of Fairfax in March 1976, killing four of them. Breeden was sentenced to five life sentences, at a time when the death penalty was not available. Mr. Horan did not seek the death penalty frequently, often consulting with the victims before pursuing capital punishment. Keith Gardner in 1999 and Edward Chen in 2002 both admitted to slaying three of their family members, but Horan did not seek death for either.

Mr. Horan said in 2007 his most satisfying case was not a murder trial. It was the prosecution of Caleb D. Hughes for the abduction of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen from a 1989 Christmas party. Video of the missing girl played nightly on local news for weeks. Melissa’s body was never found, but Hughes was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

“It was such an emotional case, and it had such a hold on me,” Mr. Horan said. “Just a beautiful little girl. She’s at a party; all of a sudden, she’s gone. I always thought she’d be found. It stayed with me for a lot of years.”

In January 1993, Mir Aimal Kasi drove to the Langley, Va., headquarters of the CIA and while standing in the road on Route 123, began firing with a rifle into cars stopped at the agency entrance, killing two employees and wounding three others. Kasi then fled the country, and was tracked down by the FBI in Pakistan in 1997 at a safe house operated by Osama bin Laden.

Under massive media scrutiny, Mr. Horan tried Kasi for capital murder and convicted him. Kasi was executed in 2002.

That same year, Malvo and Muhammad launched their murderous rampage in the D.C. area, killing 10 people in three weeks in Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft chose Mr. Horan and Ebert to begin the prosecutions of the snipers, in part because of their track records and in part because Virginia still allowed the death penalty for juveniles. Malvo was 17 at the time.

A task force was created for the two cases, which were both moved to the Tidewater area due to the massive publicity in the D.C. area, and the regional terror which made every potential juror a victim. Ebert went first, in the fall of 2003 in Virginia Beach, and obtained a capital murder conviction for Muhammad. Mr. Horan followed, in Chesapeake, and got a conviction for Malvo, who is serving four life sentences in Virginia after the jury declined to impose the death penalty.

Retired Fairfax homicide Lt. Bruce Guth, who worked on the sniper case, said Mr. Horan “always taught us homicide detectives to think and take away the various defenses that may come up … He kept his prosecutions simple. He did not like drama or gimmicky prosecutions.”

As a Marine — he also served in the Marine Corps reserve and retired as a lieutenant colonel — he appreciated hard work and routine. He demoted an assistant prosecutor for misleading him about a plea deal in 2006. He walked out of his office for lunch at exactly noon every day, where a reporter always knew he could be found, and he regularly hosted his younger colleagues for drinks on Friday nights at a bar near the Fairfax courthouse.

In 2005, the unsolved 1988 murders of Rachael Raver and Warren Fulton outside Reston suddenly caught a break — a DNA hit on Prieto, who was already in prison in California, and facing a death sentence, for a rape and murder there. Mr. Horan knew California rarely imposed the death penalty, so he petitioned California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), to allow Prieto to be extradited to Fairfax. Virginia, and Fairfax, would move more quickly than California, Mr. Horan knew, and Schwarzenegger agreed.

Evidence showed Prieto killed not only Raver and Fulton but also Veronica “Tina” Jefferson in Arlington in 1988. He returned to California and is believed to have killed five more people there. Mr. Horan and Morrogh prosecuted Prieto beginning in May 2007. A jury convicted him, but one juror rebelled during the sentencing phase, saying he’d been coerced by other jurors, and a mistrial was declared.

Mr. Horan retired that fall. But he agreed to return as a special prosecutor for the retrial, and convinced a jury in 2008 to impose the death sentence. “Follow the law and the evidence and give justice to these two dead young people,” Mr. Horan said in his final closing argument, “who didn’t have to die except for the defendant in this courtroom, Alfredo Prieto.”

“Bob is really a legend in the prosecution community,” said Joshua Marquis, who in 2007 was the vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. “One reason is, he has consistently continued to try large numbers of cases while running a large office, which is virtually unheard of in the U.S. Very few people do it.”

Mr. Horan is survived by his wife and three sons: Robert III, Kevin and Timothy.