Man freed after conviction is indicted in kidnapping Federal prosecutors say they hope charges correct injustice

November 10, 1995|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators announced the indictment of James Howard VanMetre III on kidnapping charges yesterday, saying they hoped the move would correct what they described as a miscarriage of justice when his murder conviction was overturned.

VanMetre, 38, was convicted ba a Carroll County jury in April 1993 of first-degree murder in the death of Holly Ann Blake, a 28-year-old woman he confessed to strangling and burning to ashes after she ridiculed him on their first date.

The former tree-trimmer from East Berlin, Pa. -- who police said had strewn Ms. Blake's remains across a field in northwestern Carroll County -- was sentenced to life without parole in the Sept. 26, 1991, killing.

However, in June 1994, a Maryland appellate court threw out the case because then-Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman had not followed the state's trial-scheduling rule. At the time, Mr. Hickman argued that the rule did not apply to VanMetre because he was being held in Pennsylvania on other charges.

Court of Special Appeals judges, however, determined that Mr. Hickman should have requested a waiver of the rule, which requires all trials to be scheduled within 180 days after a defense attorney enters an appearance in the case.

Mr. Hickman was not available for comment.

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said yesterday that her office began investigating the case in January at the behest of Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, who had just taken office.

"Because of a technicality in the law, that conviction was overturned," Ms. Battaglia said yesterday in announcing the federal grand jury indictment.

"We are here today to send a message that when that happens, there is a federal law that can be used."

The case can be tried in federal court because the incident began in Pennsylvania and ended in Maryland, Ms. Battaglia said. According to police, VanMetre picked up Ms. Blake for their date in Gettysburg, Pa., but she was killed in the northwest Carroll village of Harney.

"There is an interstate nexus here," Ms. Battaglia said. "Otherwise, it would be a local case."

Mr. Barnes said yesterday's indictment helps him fulfill a state's attorney's office goal of finding solutions "for any existing problems or injustice that had occurred in the past."

"Justice had been defeated, once again leaving the victim's family, citizens and law enforcement in a state of shock," Mr. Barnes said of the overturned conviction.

"Today, we have a federal indictment upon which we may all, once again, base our sincere hope that justice will ultimately be served."

If convicted, VanMetre could receive a sentence of life without parole, Ms. Battaglia said.

Although a federal law passed last year allows prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in kidnapping cases where the victim is killed, former sentencing guidelines must be followed because Ms. Blake was killed in 1991, Ms. Battaglia said.

VanMetre is in a Pennsylvania prison serving a 15- to 35-year sentence for the 1991 kidnapping and rape of a Gettysburg-area woman. He has appealed that conviction.

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