Hickman Defends Handling of Van Metre Case

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

June 26, 1994

In your most recent venomous editorial in regard to the state's attorney's office, concerning the Van Metre case, you continue to either leave out key facts or misstate key facts. You calling someone else incompetent is akin to Saddam Hussein lecturing on warfare at our Army War College. Let me try to set the record straight:

Early on a Sunday morning in October 1991, the state police called me at home to alert me to a homicide investigation. Within an hour, I watched James Van Metre describe to Cpl. Doug Wehland the manner in which he strangled Holly Blake, as he stood on the spot where she died. His manner was serious, but matter-of-fact, like a motorist describing a fender-bender accident.

As he spoke, he looked into Corporal Wehland's eyes and never blinked or looked away as one would expect a person of normal emotions to do. He had done a thorough job of destroying her remains and erasing the remains of the fire he used for that purpose. He showed us the two spots along the Monocacy where he had dumped her ashes. Diligent work that morning by state police crime lab personnel in the river led to the recovery of the victim's teeth, crucial evidence in a murder case when no body is recovered.

The Pennsylvania troopers who brought Van Metre to Maryland from Tennessee that morning continued with him to Pennsylvania. Ed Ulsch, the deputy state's attorney, spent the rest of the day with MSP investigators in Pennsylvania. Thereafter, the cooperation of investigators of the Pennsylvania State Police, the Maryland State Police and the Chattanooga (Tenn.) City Police was excellent.

Van Metre had committed a brutal rape in Pennsylvania and they wanted to try him first. They would not release him to Maryland until after his trial, and even then it took a special agreement personally signed by the governor of Maryland and the governor of Pennsylvania to get that done.

One cannot blame the Pennsylvanians for their caution. If one wishes to know what problems can arise in such a situation, one need look no further than Carroll County -- 23 years ago, Robert Michael Wilson broke into Ben Ray Farm and upon being surprised by the state police wait ing for him, elected to shoot two policemen. He missed, but escaped and was later shot himself at Baugher's Restaurant. Upon being released on bail, he returned to Massachusetts where he was arrested and imprisoned in a manslaughter case.

While Carroll County was attempting to get him back for trial, Wilson was charged with killing Albert DeSalvo, the convicted Boston Strangler, in his prison cell. Despite strenuous efforts by Carroll County in state and federal courts, Massachusetts prevailed in keeping him. He was tried there for the murder, and the result was a hung jury. A year later, he was tried again and the result was a hung jury. Finally, Massachusetts released him to us in 1975, more than four years after the crime here.

When we attempted to try him, the case was dismissed because we were held to have denied him a speedy trial. He went free. We appealed and won a reversal in the Court of Special Appeals, later affirmed in the Court of Appeals and finally in the Supreme Court. Finally, after he had, in the meantime, committed other felonies in Delaware, Maryland and Florida, we got to try him in 1979, more than seven years after the crime at Ben Ray. He is still in prison.

Having had this nightmarish experience, we elected not to get into a fight with Pennsylvania in the Van Metre case. And they were as cooperative with us as the law allows. We monitored the situation there, where Van Metre claimed insanity and delayed his trial as long as he could. Finally, after his trial and a carefully crafted agreement between the governors, which is very rare, he was turned over to us for trial and we promptly tried him.

Contrary to the careless handling you portray, the prosecutors, Deputy State's Attorney Ed Ulsch and Assistant State's Attorney Christy McFaul, spent more than 100 hours in preparing the case for trial, meeting in advance with the police and civilian witnesses, researching the law, drafting questions for prospective jurors and proposed instructions, viewing the scene and crucial spots out of state; in all, a very thorough job which led to a guilty verdict on the top count, murder in the first degree, an outstanding result in view of the fact that there was such a short period of time for Van Metre to form the necessary premeditation to kill. If you think such preparation is normal in other counties, you should call some of the police who work in those counties. The success in this case was important in terms of demonstrating the capability of our people. We now have six attorneys who have tried and won a first-degree murder case. Some counties have no one who has succeeded in such a case.

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