Va. judge declines to step down in serial killer Prieto's resentencing
The resentencing of serial killer Alfredo R. Prieto in Fairfax County can proceed now that a Fairfax judge has rejected a call to recuse himself after he showed emotion in first sentencing Prieto to death in 2008.
Prieto was convicted in 2008 of the double murder of Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, both 22, outside Reston in 1988. The Fairfax jury gave Prieto death, and in May 2008, Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows imposed that sentence. (He could have reduced it.)
Prieto's lawyers felt Bellows went over the line in comments explaining why he was imposing capital punishment, and that he couldn't be open-minded and unbiased now that the case is back for resentencing. (The verdict form given to the jury wasn't proper, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled, and didn't give them all the available options. The guilty verdicts stood, but a new sentencing hearing must be held.)
Looking down at the victims' parents, who had endured two long trials -- the first was a mistrial -- Bellows said to Prieto:
You stole their children from them and you did so in a matter so unspeakable and horrific that even today, two decades later, it remains and open and shattering wound.
Bellows, in a 35-page letter opinion with its own table of contents, ruled that he was well within his duties to explain why he was choosing death for Prieto and he did not apologize for a number of strong comments to the man who'd been convicted of his second and third murders, and his second rape.
Authorities believe Prieto shot Fulton while he was on his knees, then shot and raped Raver. He also is strongly linked to two other murders.
"Judges are not required to shed their humanity when they don their robes," Bellows wrote. "What a judge may not do is to be swayed or driven by emotion in his decisions. Here, there is no support for the assertion that this Court was 'swayed' by emotion."
Now Bellows must decide how to handle the resentencing, a prospect that daunts all the people involved in the case. Prieto's defense and mitigation evidence both revolved around his complex claim of mental retardation. But the jury in Prieto's last trial also heard the details of Prieto's gruesome crimes, which is certainly crucial to anyone imposing a criminal sentence.
Will live witnesses be brought back for a third time? Will there be extensive reading of the last trial's transcripts? Will the victims' families have to sit through this a third time? All are questions Bellows, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh and defense attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro must resolve by September.
In their recusal motion, Greenspun and Shapiro warned the judge that if he didn't recuse, it could become grounds for appeal. And possibly a reversal. And then a fourth death penalty trial.
Let's not think about that.
-- Tom Jackman
March 12, 2010; 8:14 AM ET
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