After 40 Years Prosecuting Crimes, Retirement Is Scary Prospect
Commonwealth’s Attorney Has Been a Master of Routine
It’s hard to picture Robert F. Horan Jr. as a defense attorney. But there was a time, in the mid- 1960s, when the man who would become Fairfax County’s chief prosecutor for 40 years worked on the other side of the courtroom.
Then, in 1966, while he was representing a man charged with sexual assault, the Supreme Court ruled that suspects must be advised of their rights, a precursor to the Miranda case. Horan argued that his client’s confession was illegal, a judge threw it out and the man ultimately was acquitted.
“ Which kind of soured me on the system,” Horan said. “ For the police to have taken an honest statement from the guy, and it gets thrown out, that didn’t sit well.”
A year later, the chief judge of Fairfax asked him to be the commonwealth’s attorney. And he has been ever since.
Last week, Horan ( D) announced that he will not seek an 11th term. Horan said he will resign in late summer or early fall rather than serve out his term, clearing the way for his chief deputy, Raymond F. Morrogh ( D), to run as the acting commonwealth’s attorney in the November general election.
Horan agonized over his decision to step down when he would have been unopposed. He said his declining hearing has troubled him, particularly in whispered bench conferences, and he noted that he would be 75 at election time.
But still, even after he decided to retire, he was ambivalent about leaving a job he clearly loves. “ I’m not totally happy with it, I concede that,” he said. “ My wife is happy with it.”
His wife, Monica, also played a role in keeping the New Jersey native in Northern Virginia in the early 1960s, paving the way for him to become the longest- serving prosecutor in the state and an institution among prosecutors nationwide.
After Horan graduated from Georgetown’s law school in 1961, he was faced with the decision of staying in the area or returning to New Jersey. But to obtain a law license in New Jersey, a six- month clerkship was required.
Horan and his wife had one child and a second on the way. “ I couldn’t afford to be a clerk for six months,” he said. “ So we stayed in Virginia and never regretted it.”
Horan spent two years as a Fairfax assistant prosecutor and two years in private practice. He was appointed the county’s top prosecutor in March 1967, when Ralph G. Louk stepped down. He faced opposition in 1967, 1971 and 1975 but not again until 1995. And not since.
In 1967, the county was still partly rural, with vast undeveloped stretches and some large cattle farms. “ There were no stoplights in Seven Corners,” he recalled of the now complicated in- tersection near Falls Church. Horan had five assistant prosecutors that year. Today, he has 22, still a low number compared with surrounding counties.
But remarkably, “ the assistants’ caseloads are roughly what they were when I had five,” Horan said. As the county’s population exploded from about 450,000 in the late 1960s to more than a million today, the crime rate has fallen steadily. Homicides number between 12 and 20 annually, the same as in the 1970s. Burglaries and larcenies, which totaled 24,000 in 1980, are down to about 15,000 annually.
Horan has a couple of theories. One is that older, more marginal neighborhoods such as Blevinstown, just outside Fairfax City, where local feuds tended to erupt into violence, have been bulldozed and replaced by communities of higher incomes and education. Another is that ambulance service is faster and better equipped, as are the teams in local emergency rooms. “ Many more people survive gunshots now,” Horan said.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Horan’s four decades is how he runs his office. He keeps the number of prosecutors to a minimum. He doesn’t share police reports, witness statements or witness lists with defense attorneys. And he’s not afraid to make tough decisions.
“ His office could use many more assistant prosecutors,” said Robert C. Whitestone, an experienced Fairfax defense attorney. He said the low number of prosecutors sometimes keeps them too busy and pushes them into courtrooms unprepared. Loudoun County, with a population about one- fourth of Fairfax’s, has 16 assistant prosecutors.
Horan said the state Compensation Board determines how many are allocated across the state and sets a starting salary of about $ 43,000, which Fairfax supplements to about $ 50,000. “ Virginia does criminal prosecution on the cheap,” Horan said.
He said that when he first took office, “ it had become trendy to have your own investigators. I said I don’t believe that’s the way to do it,” and he hasn’t. Instead, he relies on Fairfax police.
The officers closely follow Horan’s lead, guarding their information more tightly than virtually any other police department in the region because Horan has insisted they not provide defense attorneys with any ammunition. Those who violate his instructions are prone to severe tonguelashings.
Horan said the county police force has maintained high standards and excellent performance throughout his tenure. “ The Washington Post always wants to criticize me because I’ve never charged an officer with murder,” Horan said. “ I’m proud of the fact they haven’t been charged. It means they’re doing their jobs.”
In recent years, pickets stood outside the Fairfax courthouse to protest Horan’s decision not to charge a Prince George’s County officer with a fatal shooting, and the family of a slain Fairfax man denounced Horan’s refusal to charge a Fairfax officer with his death. But it’s nothing new to Horan.
He cited controversial cases dating to the early 1970s, when an officer fatally shot a man in a 7Eleven in Herndon, sparking riots, and another when an officer killed a teenage burglar. In both, there were no charges, to loud complaints by some. “ It’s part of the job,” he said with a shrug.
Another part of the job is successfully taking on a case when the county, or the world, is watching. No one has questioned his skill there, even defense attorneys.
“ He’s a brilliant prosecutor,” Whitestone said. Said defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun: “ My clients will be glad he’s not around to prosecute them.”
U. S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft chose Horan to prosecute one of the first sniper cases, against Lee Boyd Malvo, and Horan brought home a capital murder conviction without any witnesses identifying the shooter, although the jury did not impose the death sentence. In 1997, he obtained a death sentence against Mir Aimal Kasi, who killed two people outside the CIA in 1993.
Horan said his most satisfying case was the prosecution of Caleb D. Hughes for abducting 5year- old Melissa Brannen in 1989. Hughes was convicted of abduction with intent to defile; Melissa has not been found.
“ That was a really tough case to try,” Horan said. “ It stayed with me for a lot of years.”
Of those that have not been solved, the one that bothers him the most is the death of Gwen Ames, 17, who was found strangled near Lake Anne Plaza in Reston in 1972.
Horan noted some interesting changes in the courts over 40 years. The arrival of Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruling requiring police to inform suspects of their rights, changed the tenor of pretrial complaints from police beatings to police failure to “ Mirandize.”
And the introduction of sentencing guidelines, giving defendants a better idea of how much jail time they might face, has reduced the amount of cases that go to trial to perhaps 10 percent, Horan said.
Horan reduced his own caseload from about 20 a year, mostly homicides that he often began working on the day they occurred, to three or four annually. In recent years, with the increase in guilty pleas, he had no trials.
But he clearly still loves the courtroom. He will handle the double- murder death penalty trial of Alfredo R. Prieto, set for late May.
He’s leaving reluctantly. “ My only fear is I’ve known guys who loved what they were doing,” Horan said. “ They hung it up, and they were dead in a year.”
He loves playing golf; he drives a MercedesBenz 240 sedan he won in a charity event in 2002 when he nailed a hole- in- one. But he doesn’t think golf can fill his time, and “ there’s not a job in the world as interesting as this one.”
“ I haven’t even given any thought to what’s next,” Horan said. “ I’m sure I’ll find something to do.”
“I haven’t even given any thought to what’s next,” says Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr.