Court backs reversal of murder conviction

October 21, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland Court of Appeals will not reconsider the reversal of a first-degree murder conviction against a Pennsylvania man accused of strangling and burning a woman on a Carroll County farm.

Without comment, the state's highest court has left intact a June ruling by the Court of Special Appeals that said James Howard VanMetre III's murder conviction should be thrown out because Carroll prosecutors did not follow Maryland's trial scheduling rule.

The intermediate court said the Carroll state's attorney should have asked a judge to waive the rule -- which calls for a trial 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 his trial.

Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, who has sharply criticized the VanMetre reversal, said yesterday that he was disappointed by the high court's decision, which was issued Wednesday.

He has maintained that Maryland's trial scheduling rule shouldn't apply when a defendant is being held for trial in another state.

He said Bernard A. Blake, the victim's estranged husband, stood by his office's handling of the case. The prosecutor said VanMetre faces 80 years in prison for an unrelated Pennsylvania rape and kidnapping.

"Public safety in this case will not be jeopardized by our ridiculous rule here," Mr. Hickman said.

Mr. Blake could not be reached for comment.

In a letter to prosecutors, he has blamed Maryland law and Pennsylvania authorities for the VanMetre reversal.

But, according to one of the public defenders who represented VanMetre in his 1993 murder trial, Mr. Hickman passed up a chance to guarantee incarceration for the 37-year-old unemployed tree-trimmer from East Berlin, Pa.

Louis P. Willemin said yesterday that Mr. Hickman "wasn't interested" in with a plea agreement that would have given both sides "a guaranteed result."

Mr. Hickman recalled the plea offer, which he declined. According to the prosecutor, Mr. Willemin said VanMetre would plead guilty to manslaughter and serve 10 years in prison. The offer was made after Mr. Willemin told Mr. Hickman that he believed prosecutors could lose the case because of problems with the trial-scheduling rule.

"Yeah, they talked about that, but we knew they were wrong," Mr. Hickman said yesterday. "We had a hearing in court, and we won."

That hearing, before Carroll Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold, paved the way for the trial. The judge said Mr. Hickman's office had not violated the scheduling rule.

The state's two highest courts disagreed.

By refusing to reconsider the case, the Court of Appeals has assured that VanMetre will never be tried for the death of Holly Ann Blake, a 28-year-old Gettysburg waitress whose charred remains were found on a Harney farm in 1991.

Ms. Blake, a mother of two, and VanMetre were on their first date when, according to statements made to investigators, Ms. Blake made disparaging remarks about VanMetre, and he strangled her.

In statements to police and in court documents, VanMetre admitted throwing Ms. Blake's body on a bonfire after she died.

VanMetre never denied killing Ms. Blake. In a letter sent to Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. two months before the intermediate court struck down his conviction, he asked to be executed.

"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 April.

Judge Beck presided over his murder trial and sentenced him to life without parole.

VanMetre is in the Adams County Prison awaiting sentencing in the Pennsylvania rape and kidnapping case. He was charged recently with assaulting a prison guard.

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