The U.S. attorney for Maryland is investigating whether to file federal charges against James Howard VanMetre III, a Pennsylvania man whose sentence of life without parole for a Carroll County murder conviction was overturned by Maryland appellate courts.
"The VanMetre case was referred to us by the Carroll County state's attorney, and we will be looking into it for appropriate federal violations," U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said Friday. She declined to elaborate on what charges VanMetre might face.
Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said that "the problem" of watching a "murderer go unpunished" because of a prosecution mix-up led him to approach federal prosecutors.
"As soon as I took office, I began to search for a solution to this, for a way to see if he can be punished for what he did," Mr. Barnes said Friday.
VanMetre, 37, of East Berlin, Pa., was convicted in April 1993 of the 1991 strangulation of Holly Ann Blake, a 28-year-old waitress with whom he was on his first date.
VanMetre confessed to the killing and to burning Ms. Blake's body.
L He said he flew into a rage when she criticized his anatomy.
A Carroll jury took several hours to find him guilty. The conviction -- and the life-without-parole sentence -- were thrown out last June by Maryland's appellate courts because then-Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman had not followed the state's trial-scheduling rule.
Turning to federal authorities for prosecution when state charges are unsuccessful is an uncommon but not unprecedented move, said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.
"It's not a common tool, which makes it worse, not better," Mr. Warnken said, pointing out that using federal statutes when state prosecutions fail is done almost arbitrarily. He said that, despite common perception, pursuing federal charges for a crime in which someone ultimately is acquitted or not found guilty does not violate the Constitution's prohibition on double jeopardy.
"The Supreme Court has said that, unfortunately, double jeopardy does not protect someone, because they are two separate and sovereign entities," the professor said.
The most likely charges, Mr. Barnes said, involve kidnapping and federal civil rights violations. Mr. Barnes and Ms. Battaglia declined to discuss possible charges in detail, but Mr. Warnken said a common interpretation of federal civil rights statutes would allow prosecutors to charge someone accused of murder with denying the dead person's civil right to remain alive.
The possible penalty of a federal civil rights conviction is life in prison, the professor said.
News of the federal investigation stunned VanMetre's attorneys in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Kevin G. Robinson, VanMetre's court-appointed attorney in his Adams County rape conviction, said he was surprised that prosecutors would continue to pursue the case that was thrown out.
Louis P. Willemin, the Howard County assistant public defender who was one of VanMetre's lawyers in the Carroll murder case, said he thought the pursuit of kidnapping charges was futile.
"Oh, that's too bad," the lawyer said of the federal investigation. "I don't know much about federal jurisdiction, but, at his trial, the testimony was clear that there was no kidnapping. She went willingly with him."
Bernard Blake, Ms. Blake's estranged husband, was heartened by Friday's announcement. "This is great," he said. "Now maybe justice will be served after all."
VanMetre is in a Pennsylvania prison serving a 15- to 35-year sentence for the 1991 kidnapping and rape of a Pennsylvania woman. He has appealed that conviction.