Lentz Case Sends Chill Through Federal Courthouse; In Alexandria, Spiraling Accusations of Planted Evidence in Murder Trial Spawn a Storm of Tension [ Corrected: 05/19/04 ]
Article from:The Washington Post Article date:May 10, 2004Author:Jerry Markon More results for:Doris Fay Lentz
Gene Butt grimaces each time she walks into the federal courthouse in Alexandria and sees the inscription etched in stone above a sleepy- looking marble tortoise being outrun by a hare: "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied."
"I was struck by the irony," said Butt, whose daughter, Doris Lentz, 31, of Arlington hopped into her car one spring day eight years ago and was never heard from again. "Doris has been denied justice for eight years."
Inside that courthouse, Doris Lentz's ex-husband was convicted in the killing. The conviction didn't stand, and now the question of who killed Doris Lentz and disposed of her body has been almost forgotten and replaced by a mystery of an entirely different kind: Who planted disputed evidence in the jury room at the death penalty trial of Jay E. Lentz?
The judge says he knows exactly whodunit: the lead prosecutor in the case. The prosecutor and his boss have fired back, calling the judge biased and his finding baseless. Now the defense team is in the middle of the fray, with the prosecutor saying that one of Lentz's attorneys could be the culprit.
The swirling accusations have rocked a federal courthouse known nationally as the "rocket docket" for its precision-like disposition of important cases. Meanwhile, with his conviction overturned and the possibility of a new trial, Lentz marks time in jail -- three years since his arrest -- almost as an afterthought.
With reputations and careers on the line, the tension at the courthouse, which in many ways retains a small-town atmosphere despite its big-city profile, is palpable. It can be as subtle as a frosty exchange in the courtroom between a prosecutor and defense attorney. Courthouse employees eagerly spin the latest theory about how the disputed evidence got into the jury room and marvel at how twisted the whole affair has become. It has even been suggested that a staff member could have accidentally been to blame.
And there are awkward encounters, which is to be expected when all of the central players -- the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the judge -- are clustered close together in one building and anyone can bump into anyone in the elevator.
"This is sort of like the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said one lawyer. "Everyone at the courthouse is trying not to focus on it, but it's kind of hard not to."
Locked in a sixth-floor room at the federal courthouse last summer, jurors in Jay Lentz's trial on a charge of kidnapping resulting in his ex-wife's death were struggling to reach a verdict.
Deadlocked and dejected after four days of deliberations, they decided to examine the evidence cart, where they spied a burgundy day planner and small black pocket calendar that had belonged to the victim. Suddenly, whispers of disbelief spread through the cramped room.
"Oh, my God," said one juror, prompting others to get up from the mahogany table covered with candy wrappers and Post-it notes and crowd around. Reading over each other's shoulders, they recoiled at what they saw: the last words of Doris Lentz, detailing alleged abuse by her ex-husband.
"All of the sudden, we were given the golden journals that had the answer," said Karen Plante, the jury forewoman.
Guilty, the jury said.
But that pivotal moment that several jurors said led to the conviction of the 45-year-old former naval intelligence officer also turned the case and ensured Lentz at least a fresh start and, ultimately, perhaps, his freedom.
After three jurors later realized that they may have considered evidence they weren't supposed to see, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ordered a new trial for Lentz, of Fort Washington, even if the appellate court reinstates his conviction. Lee had earlier overturned the jury's verdict for an unrelated reason. In the new- trial ruling, he accused Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. Mellin of giving the jury the planner and calendar that he said he had banned from the case.
In his 70-page ruling, Lee said Mellin was the last person to have the planners. He said Mellin had waved one of them in his closing argument. And he accused Mellin of having been "less than candid" about the matter. The judge said the material contained in those books -- notes about threatening phone calls Lentz had allegedly made to his ex-wife; references to restraining orders she had sought; the phone number of a domestic violence hotline -- had destroyed Lentz's defense.
At the courthouse, the tangled web and the virtually unprecedented allegation by a federal judge against an officer of the court have been followed with both fascination and disgust.
The favors and little courtesies that once marked daily life -- move a hearing date for me one month, I'll recommend a lighter sentence the next -- happen less frequently, lawyers say. Some defense lawyers are even reluctant to take court-appointed cases if the prosecutor is Mellin or any of his friends.
Officially, the parties maintain that the legal mud wrestling hasn't harmed relations. The wheels of justice churn. Prosecutors prosecute, even in Lee's courtroom. Lawyers who have spoken to the judge say he is unaffected.
Mellin and Lee declined to comment for this article, as did Assistant Federal Defender Michael Lieberman, who was named by Mellin as a possible suspect in the alleged evidence planting. But an array of lawyers and courthouse employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, say there is a tension in the building.
Much of it revolves around Mellin.
Once a towering figure in the Lentz case, winning a conviction that even prosecutors conceded would be difficult, Mellin's very arrival in a courtroom now sets off whispers.
The 42-year-old Texas native, who received his law degree from George Mason University, is known for his charming manner and quick wit. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in the District, prosecuting drug and murder cases, before coming to Northern Virginia three years ago.
The transition to the more sedate legal world of Alexandria has not always been smooth.
Mellin is disliked by some local defense lawyers for what they see as his overly aggressive pursuit of Lentz. Supporters see a tough but fair seeker of justice, but even they say his occasionally smart- alecky style doesn't quite fit at the federal courthouse and may have rubbed Lee the wrong way.
Long before he was accused of planting evidence, the prosecutor had caused concern among Lentz's defense team because he knew the victim (he and his wife took a parenting class from Doris Lentz in 1995), had followed her disappearance in the media for several years, requested to work on the case when he came to Alexandria and flew to Indiana to participate in Lentz's arrest in 2001. The accused made his feelings clear during one hearing, scrawling "Melin = Liar" on the back of his prison garb.
Mellin has strongly denied that his actions were improper, and Lee rejected defense efforts to hold a hearing on them in 2002.
Inside his office, prosecutors have banded together to support Mellin against what is seen as an over-the-top decision by Lee. Even those who dislike Mellin personally admire him for taking on the Lentz case when local authorities wouldn't.
Jurors echo the strong feelings about Mellin, nicknaming him Alex P. Keaton after the intense yet endearing Michael J. Fox character on the television show "Family Ties." Jurors were fascinated by how he was constantly sighing, rolling his eyes, scribbling notes -- a man in constant motion.
"He was extremely theatrical," said Plante, the jury forewoman. "If the judge agreed with his point, he would make this face like, "See? Told you." If the judge didn't grant his motion, he'd get almost huffy. He's like that guy you play racquetball with who always wins."
Jurors respected Mellin's passion for the case. "You can't get mad at a guy if he wants to put a murderer away," Plante said.
In the months since Lee implicated him, Mellin has been spotted in court less often. He spends much of his time on the very case that has put his career in jeopardy, working on both his personal appeal and the government's case against Lentz. "He's obviously not as happy as he used to be. It's like a cloud over him," said one lawyer sympathetic to both Mellin and Lee.
Mellin has not been back in Lee's courtroom, and some wonder if he will ever appear before him again.
The judge, whose clashes with Mellin during the Lentz trial riveted the courtroom, is not shy about his opinions, either. Lee has a brisk yet pleasant courtroom manner and is venerated by many defense lawyers and court employees.
But his handling of the Lentz case has at times aroused fury in the U.S. attorney's office. Even before the Mellin ruling, the judge had blocked much of the evidence the government wanted to present.
It is a role that Lee, 52, has played before. Only three years after being appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 as the first and only black judge on the Alexandria federal bench, he infuriated the state attorney general by becoming the first federal judge to order new DNA testing for a Virginia death row inmate.
Those who know Lee, who grew up in Southeast Washington and graduated from American University with undergraduate and law degrees, say he calls things as he sees them and is prepared to take the flak.
"This is a guy with a thick skin,'' said one lawyer who knows Lee well.
Today, the burgundy day planner and black calendar sit in cardboard boxes on the top shelf of the courthouse's evidence room, while the controversy swirls around them.
This is a place where messy things like this aren't supposed to happen.
Sleek-looking and smack in the middle of an area bursting with so much development that some residents call it "mini-Manhattan," the courthouse has hosted such high-profile defendants as alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and convicted spy Robert P. Hanssen.
Yet the big-city exterior is deceptive. The same 10 to 15 defense lawyers seem to handle every major case. People bump elbows in the small cafeteria, where the special one recent day was "eye round beef" with vegetable beef soup.
In many ways, the building harks back to legendary former chief judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., a courtly southern gentleman so efficient that he has told lawyers he could have tried O.J. Simpson in a week.
The defense bar in Alexandria is populated by what some call "gentleman lawyers," some of them former prosecutors, who have worked with the U.S. attorney's office in a climate of relative civility.
No more. Defense lawyers of all stripes say they are outraged by all that has happened in the Lentz case.
"You have to have faith that the government is playing by the rules," said one lawyer who practices in federal court. "This has taken the lid off a lot of underlying tensions." The result, the lawyer said, is "a much more caustic and adversarial relationship."
Tensions bubbled to the surface last week when United States of America v. Jay E. Lentz moved to a new venue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. In a show of support, 27 employees from the U.S. attorney's office filled the right side of the courtroom.
"I don't know how they sleep at night," snarled one prosecutor, glaring at the handful of defense lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty and federal public defender Frank W. Dunham Jr. chatted amiably, but their troops barely spoke.
Mellin sat at the prosecution table, but this time as the accused, with his own attorney. His lawyer, William Sullivan, complained that Lee's ruling could ruin Mellin's career and even lead to his indictment.
"What client will go to a lawyer who has been publicly admonished by a District Court judge for what are basically criminal offenses?" he asked the judges.
The judges directed most of their verbal blasts at the defense, raising the possibility that Lee's ruling against Mellin on the alleged evidence planting might not stand.
During the trial at the Alexandria courthouse, the tension positively crackled between Mellin and defense attorneys Lieberman and Frank Salvato, especially Lieberman.
Lieberman admitted as much when he testified at a hearing on the disputed planners last fall, referring under cross-examination to his contentious "history with Mr. Mellin."
The response was typical of Lieberman, 38, a Queens, N.Y., native and American University law school graduate who, like the other players in the Lentz drama, doesn't shy away from a fight. The defense attorneys, who long ago alienated some in the U.S. attorney's office with their aggressive advocacy of Lentz, laughed off the latest allegation against Lieberman. But other defense attorneys were not amused.
Unclear is whether the mystery of how the evidence got into the jury room will ever have a denouement.
"It could just be one of those things," said one courthouse employee, "that however it happened, it's a secret someone takes to their grave."