Pounding the Table in Van Metre Case

COMMENT

June 26, 1994|By BRAIN SULLAM

An old adage best describes the techniques lawyers use to win their cases:

"When the facts are in your favor, argue the facts. When the law is in your favor, argue the law. When neither is in your favor, pound the trial table loud and hard."

Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman is pounding away at the table loud and hard in an effort to explain the recent acquittal of James Van Metre for the gruesome killing of Holly Blake.

His letter to the editor published alongside this column attempts to demonstrate that his handling of the case was proper, but it only reinforces the view that Mr. Hickman made a mess of it.

The state's attorney's office won a conviction against Van Metre in April 1993. Not only did it have his confession, but it had all the necessary evidence to convince a jury that he committed a horrible murder. Prosecutors Ed Ulsch and Christy McFaul, who tried the case, used this evidence and convinced a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Van Metre committed first-degree murder in September 1991. He received a sentence of life without parole in May 1993.

The problem is not with them nor their handling of the case. Unfortunately, the case was lost before it even got to this stage because Mr. Hickman believed the so-called Hicks rule (a Maryland law that requires a criminal to be tried within 180 days after a defense attorney files to represent the accused) did not apply in this instance. Judging from this letter, he makes an implausible argument that he never made any mistake.

In drawing a parallel between the Van Metre case and a 23-year-old case involving Robert Michael Wilson, who was wanted for shooting at two state troopers in Carroll County, Mr. Hickman attempts to persuade his constituents that preventing a jurisdictional fight between Pennsylvania and Maryland was part of his strategy to win a conviction. But the problems that befell this case don't center around whether Pennsylvania authorities had custody of Van Metre. The problem lies directly with Mr. Hickman, who failed to obtain a waiver from the Hicks rule, such as is routinely granted in every jurisdiction in this state.

There are three conditions for obtaining a Hicks waiver. First, the state, the defense or the court can ask for a postponement. Second, the party requesting the postponement must have a good cause. Third, the administrative judge, or designee, must approve the extension.

Mr. Hickman never requested a postponement. As the Court of Special Appeals wrote: "It is undisputed that the state never requested a postponement. . . . Thus, the first condition of the three-part test was not satisfied, and the case must be dismissed."

When Mr. Hickman states that the "Court of Special Appeals held we should have scheduled his case for trial . . .," he deliberately misstates the court's opinion.

Rather than telling him to schedule the case, the court said his office simply should have obtained a waiver. Having a defendant jailed in another state would have been the "good cause" Carroll County prosecutors needed to postpone the case and preserve their ability to convict him.

Contrary to Mr. Hickman's opinion that the Court of Special Appeals' ruling is "at odds with reason," the three-judge panel made the only ruling Maryland law and precedents permitted.

Incompetence is the only explanation for this fiasco.

After serving as state's attorney for nearly a quarter-century, Mr. Hickman cannot plead that he did not understand how the Hicks rule worked or that a sharp public defender sandbagged the case by surreptitiously filing her appearance.

The state's attorney's office knew that Martha Sitterding, a Carroll County public defender, had entered her appearance on Van Metre's behalf on Dec. 13, 1991, eight days after a grand jury indicted him for Ms. Blake's murder.

How do we know? When Ms. Sitterding entered her appearance, she also filed a motion to suppress all evidence that was entered against her client, contending it had been illegally obtained. On Jan. 9, the state's attorney filed a response, indicating they knew Van Metre had an attorney and thus, should have known the Hicks clock was ticking.

Neither can Mr. Hickman claim that his office could not keep track of the Van Metre case because in this county, his office is responsible for scheduling all criminal cases. In most Maryland counties, the administrative judge or the clerk's office handles this duty. However, in Carroll, the prosecutors have assumed this duty.

If Mr. Hickman had followed established procedure and obtained a Hicks rule waiver, Van Metre would be a convicted felon in Maryland.

At the moment, Mr. Hickman hopes the Attorney General's office can rectify his mistake. The office has agreed to appeal to Maryland's highest court -- the Court of Appeals. Mr. Hickman feels confident that because there have been some exceptions granted to the Hicks rule, the Court of Appeals will reinstate Van Metre's conviction.

There is no guarantee the court will even agree to hear it.

Mr. Hickman talks a tough line on crime, but his job is to convict criminals, and in the case of James Van Metre, Mr. Hickman failed the people of Carroll County and the state.

All the pounding on the table won't change that reality.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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