Wednesday, May 5, 2004

RICHMOND — An attorney for a prosecutor accused of planting inadmissible evidence in the trial of a former naval intelligence officer urged a federal appeals court yesterday to clear his client of any wrongdoing.

In a two-part hearing, the government also asked a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the conviction of Jay Lentz in the kidnapping and death of his former wife, Doris, who was last seen in 1996 but whose body has never been found.

Lentz was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping resulting in death.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ordered a new trial for Lentz, saying Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Mellin deliberately planted in the jury room two day planners in which Mrs. Lentz had written notes about threats by her ex-husband. Much of the material had been ruled inadmissible.

Judge Lee also found that prosecutors failed to prove the interstate kidnapping law was broken, the only reason the federal government could claim jurisdiction.

Mr. Mellin’s attorney, William M. Sullivan Jr., told the court that failure to reverse Judge Lee’s finding of prosecutorial misconduct would allow a killer to go free at the expense of “a conscientious, diligent, credentialed prosecutor.”

Prosecutors contend that a court security officer mistakenly placed the day planners in the jury room. Mr. Sullivan said Mr. Mellin “has suffered significant reputational harm” because Judge Lee accused him of wrongdoing that could be considered criminal.

He said there was no evidence supporting Judge Lee’s finding.

Frank Salvato, an attorney for Lentz, noted that Judge Lee found Mr. Mellin’s responses to questions about the day planners were to be “less than candid.” Mr. Salvato said the judge was entitled to broad discretion in weighing Mr. Mellin’s credibility.

The question of whether the government proved interstate kidnapping charges centered on whether Mrs. Lentz was in her husband’s control when she drove alone from Virginia to Maryland, lured by Lentz’s invitation to pick up their daughter, who was really with relatives in Indiana.

“She was being held by mental deception,” said Prosecutor Vincent Gambale.

Michael W. Lieberman, another attorney for Lentz, argued that Mrs. Lentz could not have been kidnapped because she was unaccompanied.

The appeals court usually takes several weeks to issue a decision.

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