Hair's breadth: Rice trial delayed nine months
A federal judge postponed the capital murder trial of Darrell David Rice for nine months at the request of prosecutors who want to examine hairs discovered on crime scene evidence and previously tested DNA that suggests another man was involved.
Rice, 36, is accused of torturing and slashing to death Julianne Williams and Laura "Lollie'' Winans at a Shenandoah National Park campsite during Memorial Day weekend in 1996.
His trial was to begin November 3, but prosecutors asked for a delay last week after a flurry of tests by government experts who found three additional hairs on evidence and concluded that another man may have been present during the murders.
"We really need to clear this up,'' prosecutor Tom Bondurant told reporters after the Wednesday, October 29, hearing.
Prosecutors say in court documents that when they indicted Rice in April 2002, their forensic experts said hair and fingerprints found at the campsite were inconclusive– neither proving nor disproving that Rice was the killer.
But when prosecutors ordered additional tests in preparation for the trial, lab technicians found that a strand of hair previously linked to Williams or Winans actually belonged to someone other than the victims or Rice.
The hair, found on a glove at the crime scene, was determined to be similar to another hair at the camp that also did not match Rice or the victims.
In addition, the FBI lab told prosecutors that they had found two previously undetected knuckle hairs on the gloves. And lawyers said another untested hair strand was recently found on Williams' cap.
In court documents, prosecutors said a government expert also recently changed her opinion about DNA evidence found on ligatures used to tie the victims, saying the DNA did not belong to Rice, but to another man who could possibly be the perpetrator.
Prosecutors had requested a six-month delay, but U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon postponed the trial until August 9, 2004, to suit previous commitments of defense lawyers and Bondurant's vacation plans.
Moon denied a request by defense lawyer Gerald T. Zerkin to drop the indictment and charge Rice again when prosecutors are ready.
Defense lawyers had opposed the delay, saying a lawyer and a paralegal might not be able to remain on the defense team for so long. Moreover, they said in court documents, it was unreasonable to give prosecutors additional time if they're going to use it to discredit their own experts.
"What we're concerned about is we'll get some explanation that (the hairs are) not part of the crime scene,'' Zerkin told Moon.
Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, were found dead June 1, 1996, at a creek-side camp in a remote part of the park. Both were bound and gagged, and their throats were cut. The two women had been living together in Burlington, Vermont.
Investigators have focused on Rice for six years, building a case that relies on circumstantial evidence and testimony from jailhouse informants.
Prosecutors contend that Rice, who's serving time for trying to kidnap a woman six years ago in the Shenandoah National Park, is a violent misogynist and homophobe who targeted Winans and Williams because they were lovers.
Witnesses and surveillance cameras place Rice in the national park at the time of the slayings, according to court documents. Former workmates and neighbors also told investigators that Rice had a history of hating women and gays.
FBI undercover agents recorded conversations with Rice in which he described the park slayings using details that prosecutors say the public didn't know. Finally, a former cellmate of Rice's also claims that Rice confessed to him about killing Williams and Winans.
Wednesday's hearing, which was called with less than a day's notice, was moved from Charlottesville to Harrisonburg because Moon was hearing other cases there.