Af­ter 40 Years Pros­e­cut­ing Crimes, Re­tire­ment Is Scary Prospect

Com­mon­wealth’s At­tor­ney Has Been a Mas­ter of Rou­tine

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Tom Jack­man

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.

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