Acquittal Due to Incompetence

June 10, 1994

Many citizens may believe that the recent reversal of a murder conviction against James Howard VanMetre III for a 1991 killing in Carroll County was due to a technicality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest tribunal, overturned the verdict because the Carroll County state's attorney's office arrogantly decided to write its own rules procedure rather abide by those that apply to everyone else in Maryland.

If Carroll's prosecutors had handled this case properly, VanMetre would still be convicted and facing life without parole in a Maryland prison. Even though he confessed to killing Holly Blake and spreading her remains around a farm in Harney three years (( ago, the appeals court acquitted VanMetre of this heinous crime. He can never be tried on these charges again.

This is not a case of the appeals court coddling criminals.

Under Maryland law, the prosecution must begin criminal trials within 180 days after the defendant's attorney files his or her appearance in the court record. If prosecutors cannot meet this 180-day deadline, they can ask the judge for a postponment, which state courts routinely grant.

This is not an obscure rule, either. Carroll's prosecutors are well aware of it. They chose to ignore it, claiming that because VanMetre was being jailed in Pennsylvania, Maryland's judicial clock wasn't ticking.

Only incompetence can explain that reasoning. In its decision, -- the appeals court outlined three conditions under which the strict 180-day requirement can be relaxed. Having a defendant jailed in another state is not mentioned. The court noted in direct and damning language: "This argument is simply without merit."

Luckily for the rest of us, VanMetre is imprisoned in Pennsylvania, facing a 60-year sentence for kidnapping and raping an Adams County woman in another crime.

State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman Jr. must take responsibility for this blunder. Considering that Carroll County has so few murders each year, his office should be able to keep track of all the important procedural milestones to ensure that these cases are not overturned on appeals. This incompetence endangers the community, which leads to the next crime: Not one person has filed election papers to challenge Mr. Hickman this fall.

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