VanMetre's conviction overturned

June 07, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

The state's second highest court has thrown out the murder conviction of a Pennsylvania man charged with strangling and burning a woman on a Carroll County farm because prosecutors failed to secure a waiver of Maryland's trial-scheduling rule.

In an opinion filed yesterday, the Court of Special Appeals said the Carroll state's attorney should have asked a judge to waive the rule -- which calls for trials within 180 days of an attorney's involvement in a case -- when it was clear that James Howard VanMetre III would not be released by Pennsylvania authorities in time for a trial.

Carroll prosecutors had argued that because VanMetre was being held in Pennsylvania on unrelated rape charges, the Maryland trial-scheduling rule did not apply to him until he was brought to the state.

"This argument is simply without merit," the court wrote in its eight-page opinion. The prosecution's "theory would reduce the Maryland Rules to the status of mere guideposts for each locality. This we simply cannot do."

The court reversed VanMetre's first-degree murder conviction -- for which he was sentenced to life without parole -- and ordered the Carroll County Circuit Court to dismiss the conviction.

VanMetre's attorneys -- Assistant Public Defenders Martha Ann Sitterding and Louis P. Willemin -- argued for the dismissal of the charges in pretrial motions before Carroll Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold, who denied the dismissal weeks before the trial. He ruled that the trial-scheduling rule didn't apply "until the presence of the defendant in the state."

The appellate court said Judge Arnold's decision was wrong. "Unfortunately, this interpretation of the Maryland Rule is contrary to established precedent," the court wrote.

A jury of nine men and three women deliberated for five hours April 16, 1993, before convicting VanMetre, 36, a self-employed tree trimmer from East Berlin, Pa.

VanMetre was accused of strangling Holly Ann Blake, 28, on Sept. 26, 1991, after she made a disparaging remark about his anatomy. He also was accused of burning her body several hours after the slaying and spreading her charred remains along the Monocacy River. The two had been on their first date.

News of the reversal brought tears of disbelief from Bernard A. Blake, the victim's former husband. He lived with her at the time of the killing.

"I can't believe that. That's unbelievable. I can't believe that they actually threw that out," Mr. Blake screamed over the phone from a neighbor's house near Gettysburg, Pa. " He's got more rights than the people getting killed. What kind of justice system do we have? Something ain't right, something ain't right, something ain't right."

Despite the reversal of his conviction in Maryland, VanMetre isn't close to being released from prison: He faces a sentence of more than 80 years for an unrelated Pennsylvania rape and kidnapping. VanMetre is appealing those convictions.

While clearly unhappy with the Court of Special Appeals decision, Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said that, of all murder cases to be overturned, VanMetre's is the easiest to accept.

"If we're going to have one go awry, this is the best one," Mr. Hickman said last night. "Look on the practical side. We're very fortunate in that this man is backing up a lot of time in his Pennsylvania case."

Mr. Hickman said he would ask the state attorney general's office to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals. The high court could refuse to hear the appeal, which would leave the reversal intact.

Mr. Willemin and Ms. Sitterding declined to comment on the appellate court's decision.

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