- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A federal judge yesterday acquitted a former naval intelligence officer from Fort Washington of kidnapping resulting in death for the 1996 disappearance of his ex-wife.

U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled there was no evidence that Jay Lentz, 43, held or detained Doris Lentz as part of a kidnapping.

Without that element, the case was not a federal crime, the judge ruled.

It marked the first time a federal judge had overturned a jury’s verdict in a modern death-penalty case and ordered an acquittal, a legal analyst said.

“There is no evidence Jay Lentz held or detained Ms. Lentz as a part of a kidnapping. This fatal flaw requires the Court … to dismiss this case,” Judge Lee wrote in a 55-page ruling.

A hearing will be held Tuesday to determine whether Mr. Lentz will be released on bail.

Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District, said the government will appeal the judge’s decision.

“The judge’s ruling overrides the jury’s careful and lengthy deliberation and guilty verdict in this case. We will be filing our notice of appeal at the appropriate time and will do everything possible to hold Mr. Lentz accountable for his actions,” he said.

Mrs. Lentz, 31, disappeared on April 23, 1996, after leaving her Crystal City apartment for what friends testified was a trip to Mr. Lentz’s Fort Washington home to pick up their daughter, Julia, who was then 4.

Mrs. Lentz’s blood-spattered car was found in the District five days later, with her keys and purse inside. Her body has not been found.

Federal prosecutors argued that Mr. Lentz lured Mrs. Lentz to his home to kill her to end a quarrelsome relationship and to relieve himself of more than $40,000 he owed in child support. Prosecutors argued Mrs. Lentz thought she was picking up Julia when in fact Mr. Lentz had sent the girl to his parents’ house in Indiana.

However, Judge Lee ruled that federal prosecutors did not prove that Mr. Lentz committed the federal offense of kidnapping.

“The government failed to prove an essential element of the crime … that Ms. Lentz was held in connection to her alleged murder,” he wrote in the ruling.

Prosecutors pursued a case against Mr. Lentz for kidnapping, not murder, because they lacked concrete evidence of Mrs. Lentz’s murder.

Judge Lee said in his ruling that the Federal Kidnapping Act requires a showing that the victim was held or detained as part of the kidnapping. The act was passed after the infamous kidnapping in 1932 of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

Prosecutors had argued that a murder was the ultimate form of detention, but Judge Lee said that assertion was not supported by case law.

Judge Lee’s ruling suggests that he believes the case would be handled more appropriately as a local murder prosecution, detailing in several footnotes how Maryland murder law would apply to the Lentz case.

“The court concludes that while there may be evidence of something here, it is not federal kidnapping as defined in the United States Code,” he wrote.

Mr. Lentz was charged with the kidnapping in April 2001, five years after his ex-wife disappeared. He was held in an Alexandria jail for more than two years. His trial began June 2, and lasted for several weeks.

A jury of eight women and four men deliberated for five days in late June without reaching a verdict, then took a nearly two-week break in deliberations to coincide with Judge Lee’s vacation and judicial conference. When the jury returned after the Fourth of July holiday, it took less than an hour to convict Mr. Lentz.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but jurors imposed a sentence of life in prison.

Kevin McNally, a lawyer with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, told the Associated Press that Judge Lee’s ruling was unprecedented in the modern era of federal death-penalty cases but that it did not surprise him.

“They didn’t have any evidence in the Lentz case. They didn’t have a body,” he said.

He also said the decision to try Mr. Lentz in federal court under kidnapping statutes “was a real stretch, and apparently they stretched too far.”

Judge Lee said it was difficult to make his decision, but argued that he was upholding constitutional legal principles. “Much will be said about how this ruling prevented the federal government from bringing to justice an alleged murderer,” he wrote.

But he said, “To allow this conviction … to stand would be to allow the federal government to, in essence, secure a conviction for first-degree murder without having to support the grade of that offense with evidence.”

To simplify the appeal process, Judge Lee waited to rule on the defense’s motion for acquittal until after the jury reached its verdict. If Judge Lee had intervened during the trial, the case never would have made it to the jury. If an appeals court judge overturns the acquittal, the jury’s guilty verdict will be reinstated.

Mrs. Lentz was a former congressional aide who was working for the Paralyzed Veterans of America when she disappeared. She and Mr. Lentz were married in 1989 and divorced in 1995.

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