Death Row Inmate in California on Trial in Virginia

Opening Statements Delivered In Fairfax In 1988 Double Slaying

POSTED: 1:21 pm EDT June 5, 2007
UPDATED: 5:51 pm EDT June 5, 2007

FAIRFAX, Va. — Alfredo R. Prieto is already on death row in California, but the threat of execution looms larger now that he is on trial facing capital murder charges in Virginia, a state far more likely to carry out a death sentence.

A Fairfax County jury heard opening statements Tuesday in Prieto’s death-penalty trial. He is accused of murdering two college sweethearts in 1988. Prieto is facing trial now only because a DNA database recently linked him to the decades-old killings.

Prieto’s case highlights the vast disparities in the administration of capital punishment among the states.

When Prieto was sitting on death row in California’s San Quentin prison, he was one of 660 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state has executed only 13 people since 1976.

In Virginia, only 20 inmates sit on death row at the Sussex state prison in Waverly; Virginia has executed 98 people since 1976.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said the disparity in carrying out executions was a major factor in his decision to bring capital murder charges.
“I was assured by California that it would be a minimum of 10 years, probably more like 15, before (Prieto) would exhaust his appeals there,” Horan said outside court. “We would not have brought him back” if he had faced execution sooner than that.

Prieto, 41, was sentenced to death in California in 1991 for raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl.

In Virginia, the appeals process often takes less than five years.

Prieto’s trial could last up to six weeks. But determining his guilt or innocence is only expected to take a few days.

If the jury convicts Prieto of the murders of George Washington University students Rachael Raver and Warren Fulton, the trial will move into a two-stage sentencing phase.

The first phase will focus on whether Prieto is mentally retarded. If the jury decides he is, Prieto cannot be executed under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

If the jury rejects the defense’s retardation claim, it will weigh whether Prieto ought to be executed. The jury will then hear evidence of other crimes allegedly committed by Prieto, including the rape and murder of an Arlington woman, Veronica “Tina” Jefferson, that also occurred in 1988. DNA evidence also links Prieto to her case.

During Tuesday’s opening statements, Horan said DNA will be the critical piece of evidence proving Prieto’s guilt. The case is significant for Horan because it is his last of a 41-year career, News4’s Julie Carey reported.

An expert is expected to testify that semen found in Raver’s body matches Prieto’s DNA. Prosecutors argue that Prieto raped Raver at the time of the murder.

The bodies of Raver and Fulton, both 22, were found in a wooded area near Reston on Dec. 6, 1988, a few days after the victims were last seen leaving a bar near the George Washington campus. Both died of a single gunshot wound to the back.

Defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro acknowledged that there is evidence of “sexual contact” between Prieto and Raver, but said evidence is totally lacking that Prieto fired the shots that killed the two victims.

Shapiro also said two hairs found in Raver’s genital area belonged to someone else and were inconsistent with a person of Hispanic origin. Those hairs have since been lost as evidence, but Shapiro said they raise doubt about whether someone else may have fired the shots that killed Raver and Fulton.

“Guilt can’t be based on speculation, on hunches, on suspicion,” Shapiro said. “There is so much doubt in this case … as to who the killer was that you’ll decide you must acquit Mr. Prieto.”

The Prieto case is the first death-penalty trial heard by a Fairfax County jury since April 2001, when jurors convicted Sterling Fisher of murder but opted to impose a life sentence. Fairfax prosecutors also sought a death penalty for Lee Boyd Malvo in the October 2002 sniper shootings, but that case was heard by a jury in Chesapeake, which convicted Malvo and sentenced him to life.

 

Copyright 2007 by nbc4.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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