`Dean' ready to try Malvo

Experienced lawyer will present Va.'s case

November 09, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. -- On Oct. 24 last year, as the sniper task force questioned two suspects who had just been arrested, the longest-tenured commonwealth's attorney in Virginia was having a great round of golf.

"Two great things happened that day," said Fairfax County's chief prosecutor, Robert F. Horan Jr. "I had a hole in one, and these two turkeys got caught."

The golf stroke won him a Mercedes-Benz -- the car he has been driving every day to the courthouse where he has been preparing the death penalty case against sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo.

He is expected to be at the top of his prosecutorial game when he steps into a Chesapeake courtroom this week to ask a jury to convict Malvo on capital murder charges. Malvo, 18, is accused of shooting FBI analyst Linda Franklin in a Home Depot parking lot near Falls Church a year ago.

Horan "is widely recognized around the state of Virginia as the dean of commonwealth's attorneys," said S. Randolph Sengel, commonwealth's attorney for neighboring Alexandria. He said Horan mixes legal knowledge with courtroom know-how and experience with the latest legal trends.

Lawyers say it is no fluke that the Justice Department handed the first sniper cases to Horan and Paul B. Ebert, his friend and counterpart in Prince William County, who is prosecuting the elder sniper suspect, John Allen Muhammad.

At 71, an age when many prosecutors are ready to cede a high-profile trial to ambitious assistants if not retire altogether, Horan tackles some of the most notorious murder cases himself. He so loves the courtroom that he said in a recent interview, "If I didn't try cases, I'd do something else for a living."

Viewed in legal circles as an effective and smart prosecutor, Horan is known for his meticulous trial preparation and for mesmerizing jurors with his deep voice and dramatic flair. He has been known to wave a death certificate while blaming a defendant for turning a human life into just so much paperwork.

His well-honed style clicks in Fairfax, a wealthy county of 970,000 outside Washington. Lawyers say he should play well in Chesapeake, which, like Fairfax, is a busy area with a large military and government contractor presence.

Becoming a `legend'

"We used to kid that we were legends in our own minds, but he is a legend in his own time," said Leo E. Green, a Maryland state senator from Prince George's County and a Horan pal from college. He remembers Horan as "brainy," athletic and highly competitive in school.

They still debate the death penalty, said Green, who opposes it.

In court, Horan cites precedents, quoting passages and page numbers, to support his positions -- without referring to notes.

An often-repeated tale has it that while defense attorneys spread a suitcase worth of files across their table, "Mr. Horan will come in with a pencil and a blank legal pad and eat 'em alive," Sengel said.

That preparation may also reflect Horan's experience and the luxury of working one case at a time.

Robert C. Whitestone, a criminal defense attorney in Fairfax, said Horan embodies what most people appreciate in a commonwealth's attorney.

"Horan is a very vigorous prosecutor, and he is sort of a no-nonsense kind of guy," Whitestone said. "And you may want that if you are a member of the community, but not if you are his opponent in court."

Horan's minimalist approach to the defense bar means that his office hands over only what Virginia law orders -- no police reports or witness statements, for example. Defense lawyers said that if Horan does give them a defendant's exact words, they may get their client's yes-and-no replies to police questions, but not the questions themselves.

"It's an extraordinarily conservative, though allowable, position when it comes to sharing information with the defendant," Whitestone said.

In contrast, many prosecutors elsewhere open their files, largely reasoning that the contents point to guilt.

When defense lawyer James Connell challenged Horan's office to try to get a police report in his client's case, Connell lost his Freedom of Information Act case at the local level, and again in 2001 before the Virginia Supreme Court.

"It's legal," Connell said.

Horan said he tries to follow the law exactly.

Keeping it simple

He said that although he sifts through a huge amount of material, he focuses on what he thinks is relevant so the case does not stray from the goal.

"I'm a great believer in `Keep it simple, stupid,'" he said.

However, he might present evidence in Malvo's trial from a dozen other sniper attacks in an attempt to show the youth's involvement in the series of shootings.

Over the years, Horan has persuaded jurors to approve the death penalty for six defendants, though a federal court overturned one of the sentences, he said.

In a case that brought extraordinary security measures and publicity, Horan won a death sentence for Pakistani native Mir Amal Kasi in the killing of two CIA employees outside the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., in 1993.

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