Prieto lawyers ask judge to step down from death penalty trial
Serial killer Alfredo R. Prieto, convicted of killing a woman in California and two people in Fairfax County, faces a complicated resentencing in Fairfax after the state Supreme Court ruled that the judge provided improper verdict forms to the jury that sentenced Prieto to death.
On Thursday, Prieto's lawyers argued that the judge was too emotional in imposing that death sentence, and should recuse himself from the case.
Prieto, now 44, was first convicted of murder and rape in 1992, and sentenced to death for the killing of a 15-year-old girl in Ontario, Calif., in 1990. But he had previously lived in Arlington, and in 2005 his DNA matched that left at the scene of the 1988 double murder of Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, both 22, in a vacant lot outside Reston.
Fairfax prosecutors extradited Prieto in 2006, despite the fact he was on death row in California, because California's appeals process often lasts 20 years or more. He was first tried in 2007, but after conviction the case ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct.
Fairfax Chief Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Smith transferred the case to Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows for the retrial, which occurred in early 2008. Prieto was again convicted, and a jury sentenced him to death.
Bellows formally imposed the sentence in May 2008, and tears came to his eyes as he looked at the victims' parents in the front row and told Prieto, "You ruined their lives. They will never, never recover."
But in September 2009, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the jury did not have the right forms to return its verdict. A requirement for a jury to issue a death sentence is a unanimous finding either that the defendant's crime was outrageously vile or that the defendant would be a future danger to society if not executed.
Bellows told the jury that even if they found both those elements, they could still sentence Prieto to life. But he did not provide them with a verdict form that allowed that option, the Supreme Court ruled. The verdict form also did not require the jury to specify that it was unanimous in finding either the vileness or future danger option.
The case was sent back to Fairfax only for resentencing, not a full trial. Bellows and the lawyers set a date for Sept. 7.
But Prieto's lawyers, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, argued Thursday that Bellows shouldn't preside at all, because of his comments at Prieto's sentencing.
"We believe that anyone who heard your comments that day," Shapiro told the judge, "would say...that Judge Bellows believes the just result is that Mr. Prieto should die." Shapiro said Prieto should begin the resentencing with a clean slate, but that the public perception is that Bellows has already made up his mind.
"It appeared that you were overcome with emotion," Shapiro told the judge. "Most people would believe that the suffering of the families became your suffering as well."
Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Casey Lingan said Bellows should stay. "You explained your decision in great detail," Lingan said. "Nothing in that was biased against the defendant."
Bellows did not rule Thursday, and said he would issue a letter opinion later. The mechanics of launching a new trial only for sentencing in a death penalty case are already daunting, and bringing in a new judge would complicate the case further.
A fourth capital murder case against Prieto, in Arlington, has been dismissed. He is also suspected of a fifth murder in Prince William County, but was never charged.
-- Tom Jackman
February 25, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Categories: Death Penalty , Fairfax , From the Courthouse , Tom Jackman , Updates
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