Two years after James Howard Van Metre III escaped a conviction for murdering a young mother and burning her body in a bonfire, federal prosecutors salvaged the case yesterday by jTC winning a key kidnapping conviction from jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
After a week of hearing chilling testimony in a case that first was bungled by prosecutors, the eight women and four men took about four hours to return their verdict, which could keep Van Metre behind bars for the rest of his life.
As he did during much of the 5-day trial, Van Metre sat stone-faced in his leather defense chair yesterday, rocking back and forth and staring straight ahead in the fifth-floor courtroom after the verdict was read.
The victim's ex-husband said he was satisfied but saddened by the verdict.
"It's been a long, hard fight. He did a horrible thing, and he needed to pay," Bernard Blake said. "But I can't believe it was allowed to go this far. Criminals have more rights than we do. The guy did it. There was no question about it. That man has taken something that no one can ever replace."
With sentencing scheduled for Aug. 1, prosecutors declined to talk about the case. But one of the lead investigators in the 5-year-old homicide said he was delighted by the jury's decision.
"It's been a long time coming," Maryland State Police Cpl. Douglas Wehland said. "Justice is finally served."
After the verdict was announced yesterday morning, Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz told the jurors something they had been forbidden to hear during the kidnapping trial.
He told them that Van Metre was convicted by a Carroll County jury in 1993 of the Sept. 26, 1991, slaying of Holly Ann Blake, 28, the mother of two daughters. But because prosecutors didn't try him fast enough, an appeals court overturned the conviction in 1994, ruling that Van Metre's right to a trial within 180 days of his arrest was violated.
That same year, angry voters ousted Carroll County's top prosecutor, Thomas E. Hickman.
Jurors said yesterday the kidnapping trial turned on several pieces of evidence.
They said a set of handcuff keys found at the scene of the slaying was a sign that Van Metre detained Blake. They said they were moved by the testimony of a Mennonite woman Van Metre raped 11 days before the slaying. And they cited the testimony of an inmate who said Van Metre tried to hire him to kill the rape victim, to prevent her from testifying at the kidnapping trial.
Van Metre is serving a 15 1/2 - to-35-year sentence for the rape and is awaiting trial on murder solicitation charges.
"Why would he go through the trouble of having her killed unless he was guilty?" said one juror, a retired bookkeeper from Baltimore County, who asked that her name not be used, fearing retribution from Van Metre.
Van Metre, a drifter who trimmed trees for a living, confessed to the killing. He said he went out on a prearranged date with Blake, meeting her at a truck stop in Pennsylvania and driving her to a farm his brother rented in Harney. Once there, he claimed, the two started to touch each other and she ridiculed the size of his genitalia.
Van Metre told investigators he strangled Blake, built a fire and burned her body during the all-night blaze. The next day, he scooped up the ashes and dumped them into the Monocacy River. Blake was identified through a few teeth and bone fragments found at the scene.
Prosecutors told jurors in closing arguments to dismiss Van Metre's story. They said he intended all along to kidnap and assault Blake, as he had kidnapped and assaulted the Mennonite woman.
"It was not some spur-of-the-moment thing," prosecutor Andrew G.W. Norman told the jurors. "It was planned. It was planned from the very beginning."
To prove Van Metre intended to kidnap Blake, prosecutors introduced the handcuff keys. They produced witnesses who said Blake had other plans the day of her disappearance. They showed a picture of Van Metre posing naked to prove that he was lying when he said he was ashamed about the size of his genitalia. And they put a fellow inmate on the stand who said Van Metre asked him to kill the Mennonite woman to keep her from testifying.
"It is only the guilty person who fears truthful testimony," prosecutor Carmina S. Hughes said.
Defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein told jurors the case was "transparent, supported by the flimsiest of evidence." He said Van Metre met Blake in a public place in broad daylight and no one saw him forcing her into his Subaru.
Noting his client's confession, Bernstein wanted to know how the jury could believe he had killed Blake, but not that it was done in a fit of rage, as he claimed.
Still, Bernstein seemed to sense that he was losing the jury. Throughout the trial, with each new terrible piece of evidence prosecutors introduced, some jurors glared at Van Metre from across the courtroom.
A day before the verdict, Bernstein made a final plea to the jury. "I know that many of you would like nothing more than to convict Mr. Van Metre because he is a bad man who has done bad things," he said. "But that would be wrong. You have to base your decision on the facts, not on passion and your feelings about my client."
Pub Date: 5/30/96