Cleaning Up the VanMetre Mess

March 02, 1995

By referring the case of James H. VanMetre III to the U.S. attorney for review, Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes hopes to rectify the botched prosecution of VanMetre by his predecessor, Thomas E. Hickman. Even if VanMetre stands trial and is convicted of federal charges for the gruesome murder of Holly Blake in 1991, justice will only partly be served.

The appropriate charge against VanMetre was murder. The appropriate venue for trial was state court. The evidence -- including a confession -- seemed more than sufficient to convict VanMetre. Unfortunately, Mr. Hickman's refusal to abide by the Hicks rule, which governs the scheduling of Maryland criminal cases, resulted in an appellate court acquitting VanMetre, an appropriate decision. The outcome, however, was totally inappropriate because a murderer (now jailed in Pennsylvania for another crime) will never serve a day for that murder.

The fact that he won last fall's election has not stopped Mr. Barnes from doing his utmost to accentuate the differences between himself and Mr. Hickman. Now, he has taken the unusual step of asking federal prosecutors to see if VanMetre committed any federal crimes when he murdered Ms. Blake in a field just south of the Mason-Dixon Line and burned her remains. While Mr. Barnes might score political points by convincing Maryland's U.S. attorney to try the case, his more important achievement may be in helping to further incarcerate a man who has shown himself to be a danger to society.

There is no guarantee that U.S. Attorney Lynn Battaglia will take the case. On occasion, federal prosecutors have sought to try defendants who escaped state convictions, most commonly when state prosecutors declined to try egregious cases. Sometimes, federal attorneys also step in after state prosecutors lose cases in spite of overwhelming evidence, such as the police beating of Rodney King in California three years ago.

Whether VanMetre, now serving a 15- to 35-year sentence in Pennsylvania for rape, violated federal statutes is uncertain. Testimony indicates that Ms. Blake voluntarily accompanied VanMetre to the field. Trying him on civil rights violations is another possibility. None of this speculation would be necessary, of course, had VanMetre's prosecution been handled properly.

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