Prisoner asks judge for death

June 14, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Less than two months before his first-degree murder conviction was overturned, James Howard VanMetre III asked a judge to sentence him to death for the 1991 slaying.

"I wish that you should have given me the death penalty and also would've carried it out immediately because I have in fact taken the life of another person," VanMetre wrote in an April 10 letter to Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr.

"I really believe that living would be too good for me and I've done my own family no good. . . . So tell me, judge. What good am I?"

VanMetre was convicted last year of strangling Holly Ann Blake, 28, on Sept. 26, 1991, while they were on their first date. He also was accused of burning her body several hours later and spreading the charred remains along the Monocacy River in Harney.

Judge Beck sentenced VanMetre to life in prison without the chance for parole. Carroll prosecutors didn't ask for the death penalty in the case.

The conviction -- and sentence -- were thrown out last week by the Court of Special Appeals, which said Carroll prosecutors failed to follow the state's trial-scheduling rule.

The state's second-highest court 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 VanMetre would not be released by Pennsylvania authorities in time for a trial.

VanMetre, 36, wrote the letter from his cell at the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill, a medium-security prison near Harrisburg, Pa. He is there waiting to be sentenced for an unrelated rape and kidnapping of a Gettysburg-area woman.

The letter -- a rambling, handwritten two-page account of his "failed" life -- describes VanMetre's disappointment with himself:

"I wish to join one Holly Ann Blake for the sins I've committed, and may GOD have mercy on my soul. I want to be executed in the name of our GOD and I've wished upon this court of Carroll County to execute me. . . . I wish for this court to carry out this execution that I will not appeal and wish for it to be handled soon after sentencing."

Judge Beck replied to VanMetre in a terse, one-paragraph letter written April 26. The judge, noting that the case was still being considered by the Court of Special Appeals at the time, told VanMetre he had "no jurisdiction to act in this matter."

The judge also said VanMetre's death-penalty request probably wouldn't be granted. "I do not believe the modification which you have requested is permitted under Maryland law," the judge wrote. He was on the bench yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Howard County Assistant Public Defender Louis P. Willemin, one of VanMetre's lawyers, hadn't seen the letter to Judge Beck. "That sort of leaves me speechless," he said yesterday. "But this is not his first admission in these proceedings."

VanMetre never wavered from his contention that the killing was justified because of Ms. Blake's disparaging remarks about his anatomy.

Carroll Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch, who prosecuted VanMetre's murder case, said he, too, was unaware of the letter. He did not know yesterday whether the state attorney general's office would ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider the reversal of the murder conviction.

Apparently, VanMetre has spent some of his time behind bars writing letters.

In the Adams County rape case, he has written to his victim several times asking her to tell the judge hearing his appeal that she forgives him, the county district attorney handling the case said yesterday.

Martha J. Duvall said the letters threaten the woman and her children if she doesn't cooperate. When he is sentenced, he faces a prison term that could be more than 80 years.

"But his prior criminal record isn't that bad," Ms. Duvall said. His overturned murder conviction cannot be used against him when he is sentenced in Pennsylvania, she said.

The reversal of VanMetre's murder conviction infuriated Bernard A. Blake, Ms. Blake's estranged husband.

He has begun a one-man crusade to change Maryland's trial-scheduling rule so "that this doesn't happen to somebody else."

Mr. Blake, who lives near Gettysburg, is seeking an audience with Gov. William Donald Schaefer and President Clinton to talk about the "injustice" of a system that could allow someone like VanMetre to be released from prison someday.

"I don't damn his soul. I want justice done," he said of VanMetre yesterday. "Justice has not happened here."

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