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The federal kidnapping prosecution of Jay Lentz has taken one surprising turn after another. And now, Lentz’s fate is in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Federal prosecutors in Alexandria who tried Lentz want the Richmond-based appeals court to reverse a July 22 order by Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that tossed out a jury conviction against Lentz. Lee’s order granted a defense motion for acquittal on the grounds that no rational finder of fact could have found Lentz guilty of kidnapping and killing his ex-wife. In a 2-1 decision last week, a 4th Circuit panel reversed Lee’s decision to release Lentz on bond, ruling he must remain in prison pending appellate review. In both his written order and in a court hearing last week, Lee expressed his eagerness for the appeals court to review his reasoning. Because Lee threw out the conviction under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the appeals court must review the evidence in the case de novo to determine whether it was sufficient to sustain a conviction. And as Lee did in the lower court, the appeals court must examine the evidence in a light most favorable to the government. At the center of the controversy is the federal kidnapping statute. A 12-person jury found Lentz guilty of interstate kidnapping leading to death and, rejecting the government’s request for the death penalty, sentenced Lentz to life in prison. The government’s theory of the case is that on April 23, 1996, Lentz lured his ex-wife Doris from Virginia to his home in Maryland on the pretense that she could pick up their daughter. After Doris arrived, the prosecution believes, Lentz killed her and disposed of her body. A few days later, police discovered Doris’ bloody car in Washington, D.C. Her body has never been found. Aside from a great deal of Doris’ blood and a small amount of Jay’s blood in the car, the government’s evidence was largely circumstantial. In order to secure a conviction, three elements of the federal kidnapping statute had to be met. The facts had to prove that Jay Lentz caused Doris to cross the state line; that he held or detained her; and that his actions caused her death. To bring the case, prosecutors turned to a novel interpretation of the law asserting that Lentz kidnapped Doris not by physically carrying her across the state line, but rather by “inveigling” her to cross the state line on her own. Only one other case has used the same reading of the law, and that case, too, was brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. United States v. Wills was a crucial precedent for the Lentz trial. As in United States v. Lentz, the government charged the defendant with interstate kidnapping leading to death. There was no body, no crime scene, and no witnesses. More importantly, prosecutors argued that Christopher Wills kidnapped his victim by tricking him into driving from Virginia to the District for a phony job interview. Trial Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected that reading. But the 4th Circuit reversed her in 2000, deciding that the federal kidnapping act encompasses a scenario where a kidnapper uses deception or inveiglement to lure his victim across state lines, even if that victim travels unaccompanied. In court documents, Lentz, the prosecutors, and Lee all cite Wills to support their contentions. Unfortunately for Lentz’s prosecutors, the 4th Circuit never ruled on whether a victim could be held psychologically during an unaccompanied journey across state lines. Nor did it address whether the element of holding can occur at the same instant the victim is killed. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declines comment, but prosecutors asserted in court documents that both the “inveiglement and holding elements of the offense were satisfied in this case when Lentz successfully lured Doris into traveling to his house” on the false belief that she would be picking up their daughter. “Doris was inveigled into traveling across state lines . . . and held by deception during that journey,” they wrote in response to questions Lee posed with regard to the motion for acquittal. Prosecutors further argued that “murder is the ultimate holding.” In his July 22 order, Lee focused almost entirely on holding as a separate element within the crime of interstate kidnapping leading to death. There was “ample evidence” of inveiglement in the Lentz case, Lee wrote, but no “evidence of holding by deception in addition to the initial inveiglement.” The 4th Circuit could find that the holding element is met at the moment the victim is killed. Lee rejected the government’s proposition that the killing implicit in the Lentz case amounted to detention and noted that the government offered no supporting case law. But he stopped short of saying that murder can never meet the kidnapping statute’s detention requirement. In a pleading filed last week opposing Lentz’s release to home detention, the government states that Lee’s order “is entitled to no deference on appeal.” In his order, the government writes, Lee “commits the critical error of assessing the items of evidence in isolation, rather than in their totality, and refuses to accord any probative value to any piece of evidence for which there was a theoretically possible benign explanation.” By way of comparison, prosecutors cited a 2000 opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in which the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a conviction. “[W]e consider the evidence in its totality not in isolation, and the government need not negate every theory of innocence.” The 4th Circuit has not yet set a briefing schedule in the Lentz matter. Meanwhile, Lee has before him a defense motion for an evidentiary hearing and possible retrial. According to Lentz’s motion, three jurors contacted the defense team after the July 15 sentencing and revealed that the jury had reviewed a date book belonging to Doris Lentz that was never introduced into evidence. The defense wants a hearing to determine how the date book made it into the jury’s hands and whether it was prejudicial. Lentz defense attorney Michael Lieberman declines comment on the matter. In addition to being yet another twist in the case, the development could turn out to be Lentz’s safety net should the 4th Circuit reinstate his jury conviction. If the unadmitted evidence was prejudicial, the jury’s verdict must be set aside. And if its presence in the jury room was the result of prosecutorial misconduct, the government would be barred from retrying Lentz. A hearing had not been scheduled by press time.

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