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With one voice, the jurors said he did it: Jay Lentz kidnapped his wife and killed her. They said he should die in prison. Last week, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia threw out their verdict and acquitted Lentz — the first time a judge has set aside a jury verdict in a capital case since the 1988 reinstatement of the federal death penalty. “I so believed we had the right verdict,” says one of four jurors interviewed for this article. “And I just don’t know what to think now.” The drama is unlikely to end there. Prosecutors have signaled they will appeal Lee’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Defense lawyers Frank Salvato and Michael Lieberman countered July 25 with a legal strike of their own: a motion for a new trial, in the event that the appeals court reverses Judge Lee and reinstates the conviction. The defense motion contains explosive charges that jurors were “profoundly” influenced to reach a guilty verdict either by evidence never officially entered into the court record or by evidence the judge excluded from the trial as being irrelevant or inflammatory. The motion says that after Lentz had been sentenced, three jurors — James Seipel, Patrick Faber, and forewoman Karen Plante — individually contacted defense counsel to alert the team to their concerns. Plante subsequently retained Alexandria defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro. By claiming that only prosecutors ever had possession of this evidence, the motion also suggests that prosecutors were responsible for getting the damaging documents before the jury. U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty of the Eastern District of Virginia did not respond to requests for comment. Lead prosecutor on the matter, Steven Mellin, did not return a call seeking comment. Judge Lee declines comment. WITHOUT A TRACE From the beginning, it has been an unusual case. Doris Lentz disappeared on April 23, 1996, after telling friends she was going to her ex-husband’s house to pick up their daughter. Her blood-stained car was found in Washington, D.C., several days later. Her body has never been found. Five years later, federal prosecutors charged Jay Lentz in Alexandria federal court. The charges: interstate kidnapping leading to death, interstate kidnapping, and interstate domestic violence resulting in death. They sought the death penalty. Prosecutors alleged that Lentz lured his ex-wife from her Virginia home to his house in Maryland by telling her that their daughter, Julia, had returned from a visit with her grandparents in Indiana. He then killed his ex-wife, disposed of her body, and dumped her car, according to prosecutors. Lentz has always maintained his innocence. A JURY’S DUTY The eight women and four men empaneled on the jury met in an L-shaped room adjoining Judge Lee’s Alexandria courtroom. During the trial, some of the jurors ate lunch together, chatted about their lives, the weather. All were high school graduates and most had attended college. Many of the female jurors were in their early 30s, as Doris Lentz was when she disappeared. Not long after the jury began deliberations, they took a vote. Half were ready to render a guilty verdict; half were undecided. A juror who was unconvinced of Lentz’s guilt when the deliberations began says that he and others tried to compile a list of all the testimony they had heard and compare it with the case’s cargo of circumstantial evidence. It was a messy puzzle: Some pieces of evidence seemed to contradict others. Another juror says she tried to think of logical reasons for activities that seemed suspicious. The car could have been car-jacked. And misunderstandings over dates and travel times could have been the result of busy lives. It was the physical evidence, the four jurors say, to which they paid the most attention. Doris Lentz’s blood was on the passenger seat of her car, and the driver’s seat was pushed way back — as if to accommodate a tall person. A drop of Jay Lentz’s blood was also found inside the car. “For us, it showed that somewhere along the line, she met with foul play,” says one juror. That Doris’ blood was on the passenger seat indicated that she did not drive, this juror adds. “Have you seen [Lentz]? He’s very tall. The seat position is consistent with his stature.” Jay’s blood in the car coupled with Doris’ missing body “is what did it for me,” says another juror. “There aren’t that many people who have a reason for the body not to be found.” More difficult was figuring out the statute Lentz was accused of violating. By the fourth day of deliberations, jurors sent a note to Lee saying they were deadlocked. Lee told them to keep trying. “Everyone believed that he was guilty,” says one juror. The difficulty was “whether the evidence that was presented could exactly match up with the elements that needed to be proved.” The federal kidnapping law says that a person is guilty if he “seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise” any person. Several jurors say it was clear to them that if there had been a body, it might have been a murder case. Without a body, one juror explains, “they had to bring this [kidnapping] charge.” A day after they said they were deadlocked, jurors asked the court a question: To meet the elements of the crime, is it sufficient if Jay Lentz’s actions led to Doris’ detention? Or did Jay Lentz actually have to be the one to detain her? Lentz would have to be the one who detained her, Lee told them. One juror recalls: “We started to make some significant movement. We were really close.” But they still wanted a little more time. They got it, in the form of a long-planned two-week break starting in late June, scheduled by Judge Lee so he could attend the 4th Circuit judicial conference and a family reunion. “The break gave some people a bit more of a chance to gel it in their minds,” says a juror. No jurors acknowledged conducting outside research during the break, though Lentz filed a motion for a mistrial based on that possibility. “None of [the evidence] was absolutely foolproof,” a juror now says. “Some counted a lot. Some didn’t.” But the total weight of it was enough. “Everything seemed to fall together.” Within an hour of convening after the 10-day break, the jury found Lentz guilty. The panel then moved to the next step — determining whether Lentz should be executed or allowed to live out his life in prison. “It was traumatic,” says one juror. Lentz’s daughter, now 12, testified that she barely remembers her mother and did not want to lose her father, too. A few jurors cried. Others were unmoved. “I don’t think he should have allowed his daughter to testify,” says one. As soon as the jury began deliberating, it became clear that the death penalty was off the table. There were those who still had problems with the lack of a body. One juror, who had been convinced of Lentz’s guilt early on, nevertheless says “there just wasn’t enough there to really support the death penalty.” Judge Lee had given them a verdict form that included the instructions for four “threshold intent findings.” Jurors say they found the instructions confusing. According to their findings, Jay Lentz did not “intentionally kill” Doris Lentz, nor did he intentionally inflict “serious bodily injury that resulted in her death.” Neither did Jay Lentz “intentionally and specifically” engage in an act of violence, “knowing that the act created a grave risk of death to a person.” What Lentz did do, the jury found, was participate intentionally “in an act, contemplating that the life of a person would be taken or intending that lethal force would be taken or intending that lethal force would be used in connection with a person, other than one of the participants in the offense, and Doris Lentz died as a direct result of the act.” Lee also included the possible mitigating factor of “residual doubt.” Death penalty experts say a growing number of jurisdictions recognize residual doubt, which they describe as a dark-gray zone between reasonable doubt and absolute certainty that a defendant is guilty. The verdict form asked the jury to find whether “[t]he evidence of Jay Lentz’s guilt is not so overwhelming as to eliminate with total certainty the possibility of executing an innocent person. Evidence that might have proven his guilt or innocence to certainty was not available.” Seven out of 12 jurors found this to be so. “What else could we do?” one juror asks. DEFENSE MOVES FOR ACQUITAL Even before the jury returned with a verdict, defense lawyers Salvato and Lieberman had filed a motion asking Judge Lee to acquit Lentz on the grounds that the government failed to prove all the elements of the federal kidnapping law. Lentz’s lawyers say they had reason to believe Lee would set aside the verdict. At the close of the government’s case, when they submitted an oral motion for acquittal, they say, Lee seemed not only receptive to their arguments, but also a few steps ahead of them. “There’s nothing specific that he said that I can put my finger on,” Lieberman says. “When I cited cases, and this was done orally, he clearly knew what cases I was talking about and had already looked at the cases himself.” Salvato and Lieberman say their optimism grew when the jury deadlocked. “I never had any doubt the jury would acquit,” Salvato says. “I’m shocked they convicted him.” But Judge Lee waited until a week after the jury was discharged to weigh in on the defense request to set aside that verdict. Lee focused almost entirely on “holding” as a separate element of interstate kidnapping leading to death. There was “ample evidence” that Lentz lured Doris across state lines, Lee wrote, but no “evidence of holding by deception.” He stopped short of saying that murder can never meet the kidnapping statute’s holding requirement, but noted the government offered no supporting case law. In his 55-page order, Lee complained: “[T]he breadth of the statute leaves the courts struggling to walk the tightrope of trying to give the Federal Kidnapping Act the full effect intended by Congress, while restraining the large reach of the federal government from turning every domestic murder into a federal case.” In his conclusion, he seemed to anticipate the uproar his ruling would provoke. “Much will be said about how this ruling prevented the federal government from bringing to justice an alleged murderer. It is worth saying again that this was a federal kidnapping case, not a federal murder trial.”

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