Carroll County jury convicts man in strangling

April 17, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

A Carroll County jury convicted a 35-year-old Pennsylvania man of first-degree murder yesterday for strangling a woman on a Harney farm in 1991.

The nine-man, three woman panel deliberated about five hours before returning the verdict against James Howard VanMetre III, a self-employed tree trimmer from East Berlin, Pa.

As the foreman read the verdict, VanMetre stood and glanced toward the jury. He shook his head several times as the panel was polled by a court clerk.

The status of two other charges against VanMetre is unclear. The jury did not return verdicts on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter after Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. told the panel to quit deliberating if it convicted the defendant of the first-degree murder count.

That the jury convicted VanMetre of a homicide wasn't surprising, because prosecutors and defense attorneys had agreed that he strangled Holly Ann Blake, 28, on Sept. 26, 1991, after she made a disparaging remark about his anatomy. Several hours after the slaying, VanMetre burned her body and spread her charred remains along the Monocacy River. The two had been on their first date.

For Ms. Blake's former husband -- with whom she was living when she was killed -- yesterday's verdict was a relief.

"This is not so much that I got what I wanted," said Bernard A. Blake. "I just wanted justice served. I don't want to see it happen to anybody else."

Prosecutors had argued VanMetre had ample time to think about the killing while he choked Ms. Blake. They also were relieved at the verdict.

"This was a very gruesome murder of a young woman from Pennsylvania," said deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch. "We're obviously very pleased."

Judge Beck set sentencing for April 26.

Prosecutors have said they will seek for VanMetre a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The defendant's attorneys argued during the weeklong trial that he was guilty of manslaughter, not murder, because he strangled Ms. Blake in a "heat of passion."

Howard Assistant Public Defender Louis P. Willemin and Carroll Assistant Public Defender Martha Ann Sitterding left the courtroom immediately after the verdict and could not be reached for comment last night. Earlier, they said they would appeal the conviction. In pretrial hearings earlier this month, they contended that prosecutors violated Maryland's trial-scheduling rule.

If the Court of Special Appeals agrees that the rule -- which calls for trials within 180 days of an attorney's involvement in a case -- was violated, the conviction could be overturned.

Key prosecution evidence included two graphic tape-recorded confessions, in which VanMetre described how he strangled Ms. Blake, hid her body and tossed it on a bonfire.

Mr. Ulsch, in his closing arguments, described the choke hold VanMetre had on Ms. Blake. Ms. Blake died in about four minutes, testimony revealed. Mr. Ulsch told the jury that time frame was what made VanMetre's actions premeditated.

Mr. Willemin said that while VanMetre's actions were "tragic," they didn't constitute murder.

"So much of self-identity is wrapped up in sexual identity," he told the jury. No, "It [sexual identity] is central to our core. He didn't intend to kill her. He was in a rage. He was in a heat of passion."

VanMetre already faces a sentence of more than 80 years for convictions in an unrelated Pennsylvania rape and kidnapping case.

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