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Doris Lentz’s car was found in a Southeast Washington parking lot, her keys and purse still inside, a puddle of drying blood on the floor by the passenger seat. That was in 1996. Seven years later, the Arlington, Va., resident is still missing. There’s been no recovery of Lentz’s body, no discovery of a weapon, and no witnesses have come forward. If not for a remarkable ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and creative lawyering by federal prosecutors in Alexandria, a case might never have been made. On June 2, Doris Lentz’s ex-husband will stand trial on charges he physically abused her and then kidnapped and killed her to gain custody of their daughter, Julia, and to exact final revenge for the divorce. If convicted, Jay Lentz could face execution. On its long path to trial, the case has been fraught with personal attacks and bitter disputes over key testimony and evidence. Defense lawyers asked for the lead prosector, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mellin, to be booted off the case, citing an undisclosed prior relationship with Doris. They failed in that bid, but they have scored a number of victories in keeping out potentially damaging evidence, making Mellin’s job even tougher. And now, a nationally renowned death penalty expert has joined Lentz’s defense team. Jury selection ended last week — almost two years after the original trial date. Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia will preside over what promises to be an unusually dramatic trial. THE LAST SIGHTING On April 23, 1996, Doris Lentz told co-workers at the Paralyzed Veterans of America that she was going to her ex-husband’s house in Fort Washington, Md., to pick up Julia, then 4. That was the last time they saw Lentz. She and Jay were at the tail end of a particularly bitter divorce. They married in 1989 and had a daughter three years later. A former Naval intelligence officer, Jay served in Bahrain during the Gulf War. But shortly after he returned home, Doris left him, taking Julia with her. Their divorce was finalized in 1995. Prosecutors allege that Jay abused Doris during their eight-year marriage and that she feared for her life. According to government filings in the kidnapping case, Doris told a pastor at her church that after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of his ex-wife’s murder, Jay had threatened her with the comment, “If O.J. can get away with it, so can I.” She allegedly told another pastor at the church that Jay said, “O.J. could happen again,” but that “there would be no body.” Other statements also invoked the infamous O.J. trial. Doris’ friends saw bruises, black eyes, and other evidence of abuse on her body. One said Doris became “visibly fearful” when talking about her husband. Another even took pictures of the injuries, according to government filings. The day after Doris disappeared, she and Jay had a court date to hash out financial matters stemming from their divorce. Doris, of course, didn’t show up. Several days later, her bloody car was discovered. Since his arrest, Jay, 43, has fiercely maintained his innocence. At the time of Doris’ disappearance, he posited that she had been car-jacked. Although Jay was a suspect, investigators couldn’t pin down the case. He and Julia moved to Indiana a few months after Doris had disappeared. Then, in 2000, the 4th Circuit came out with an interpretation of the federal kidnapping statute that gave Virginia prosecutors needed ammunition. Usually, interstate kidnappers seize their victims and move them across state lines by force. Not in this case, prosecutors say. They allege that Jay tricked Doris into voluntarily crossing state lines on her own and then killed her. According to the federal statute, kidnapping occurs when someone “unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away” another person across a state or national line. In its Dec. 5, 2000, opinion in United States v. Christopher Andaryl Wills, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit held that a kidnapper need not accompany the victim across state or national lines. Rather, the kidnapper may simply lure his victim across a state or national line with a false promise. By accepting this reading of the kidnapping statute, the 4th Circuit created a conflict with a 1979 opinion of the 5th Circuit, which held that the kidnapper must accompany the victim across a state or national line. But it is the 4th Circuit that has controlling legal authority in the Eastern District of Virginia. Armed with a favorable ruling, Virginia state and federal prosecutors decided the feds had the best shot at making a death-penalty-eligible case against Lentz. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mellin pressed ahead with the prosecution. Mellin declines comment. On April 24, 2001, Lentz was arrested and charged with interstate domestic violence, interstate kidnapping, and interstate kidnapping leading to death, a crime that carries the death penalty. Alexandria solo practitioner Frank Salvato, a Lentz attorney, maintains that trying to apply the federal kidnapping statute to Lentz “really pushes the envelope quite a bit.” As for the prior relationship between Doris and Mellin cited by Lentz’s lawyers, the two were briefly acquainted through a child-care program, according to court papers. Judge Lee rejected the request for Mellin’s recusal. BODY OF EVIDENCE Despite the lengthy investigation, the government’s evidence against Lentz is almost entirely circumstantial. And much of that evidence has been hotly contested. Jurors on the case will hear that Doris was afraid of Jay. But the so-called O.J. comments are out. Jury selection had already begun last September when the government appealed Judge Lee’s exclusion of the O.J. comments and other statements. In a 76-page opinion issued May 14, 2002, Lee wrote that the O.J. statements would unfairly prejudice the jury. “Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find evidence more likely to excite the emotions of the jury and cause it to act irrationally than hearsay statements presented in a domestic kidnapping case laden with references to the infamous O.J. Simpson case.” Judge Lee also excluded statements in which Doris told people that if anything should happen to her, “Jay did it.” A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit was divided on the admissibility of the statements, but the majority affirmed Lee’s decision on Feb. 6, 2003. Some physical evidence that likewise will not be introduced at trial is perhaps even more compelling, if only for its mysteriousness. Prosecutors will assert that Jay Lentz washed and painted the floor of his carport in the days following Doris’ disappearance. What they won’t bring up is that, in 2001, investigators conducted tests on the floor that revealed the presence of blood in six areas. According to court files, investigators swabbed these areas and drilled holes to collect samples for DNA testing. Surface swabs contained DNA belonging to both a man and a woman, but not to Doris or to Jay. DNA tests on the other samples were inconclusive. Over the strenuous objection of the defense, prosecutors won their bid to introduce evidence of a drop of Jay’s blood in Doris’ car. And because they rejected the defense team’s offer to stipulate that Doris was killed, prosecutors will have more room to paint a picture of Doris and her life, a move often used to win jurors’ sympathies. At jury selection last week, Mellin and co-counsel Patricia Haynes took turns questioning prospective panelists. With almost every juror, they asked whether the absence of a body would prevent the juror from considering a death sentence. Every juror said no. Haynes is one of the Eastern District’s capital case experts. Most recently, she secured the convictions of two would-be spies, former Air Force analyst Brian Patrick Regan and Australian-national Jean Philippe Wispelaere. Both Haynes and Mellin worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia before moving to the Eastern District of Virginia. Last December, Mellin did a stint in Hamburg, Germany, representing the interests of the United States in the trial of al Qaeda terrorism supporter Mounir el-Motassadeq. On the defense, Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Lieberman and Salvato have been working with Lentz since the court appointed them in May 2001. Judy Clarke joined the defense team last month. Clarke is one of two death penalty counsel for the Federal Public Defender System who assist in capital cases around the country. Though based in California, she is quite familiar with the Alexandria court: Clarke has been working with the standby lawyers assigned to accused terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. In contrast to Moussaoui, who is representing himself, Lentz has availed himself fully to counsel. Last week, he appeared to participate actively in discussing potential jurors with his attorneys. His trial is expected to take two weeks. “We’re anxious to get started,” Salvato says. “It’s been a long time.”

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