Rice reprieve: Feds to drop Park murder charges

Federal prosecutors are seeking to withdraw charges against a man accused in the 1996 torture slayings of two hikers in Shenandoah National Park.

Darrell David Rice, 36, was to stand trial next month in Charlottesville on four counts of capital murder in the killings of Julianne Williams and Laura "Lollie'' Winans during a Memorial Day weekend nearly eight years ago.

Rice was indicted in April 2002 in the slayings of Williams, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Winans, of Unity, Maine, who were lovers. They knew each other from a Minneapolis women's organization, and later moved in together in Burlington, Vermont. Prosecutors had said Rice killed because of his hatred of gays.

U.S. Attorney John L. Brownlee said in a statement on Friday, February 6, that new forensic evidence "requires the government'' to seek a dismissal.

"The investigation has revealed the presence of evidence at the crime scene that currently could cast doubt on the government's case against Rice,'' Brownlee said.

Brownlee sought the dismissal of the charges "without prejudice,'' leaving the door open that Rice could be charged anew.

But Fred Heblich, one of Rice's attorneys, said new charges are unlikely.

"They've made this decision based on the evidence they have. In order for them to seek a new indictment, they'd have to have evidence they don't have now, I suppose,'' he said.

Rice is serving a 135-month federal term for the attempted abduction of a woman in 1997, also in Shenandoah National Park. About 2-1/2 years are left in his sentence.

The case against Rice in the slayings was based primarily on jailhouse informants.

"As the forensic evidence has piled up, it has always been inconsistent with Mr. Rice,'' said Gerald Zirken, one of Rice's attorneys. "It suggested to us for some time that he shouldn't be prosecuted, and the government was reading the same reports.''

Heblich said he expected U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon to enter an order dismissing the case this week.

Williams' parents, Tom and Patsy Williams, issued a statement saying they were "extremely disappointed'' with the development.

"While the preponderance of evidence points to the accused as the murderer, we support the U.S. Attorney in dismissing the charges, at this time, to provide an opportunity to reevaluate the existing evidence and to pursue additional evidence that will prove guilt, without doubt.

"Until that time, we wait. We are both hopeful and confident that, one day, justice will be served,'' the statement said.

Forensic experts initially 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 last year, 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 court documents, prosecutors also said a government expert changed her opinion about DNA evidence found on straps used to tie the victims. The expert said the DNA did not belong to Rice, but to another man who could possibly be the killer.

Witnesses and surveillance cameras place Rice in the national park at the time of the slayings, according to court documents. Former co-workers and neighbors also told investigators that Rice had a history of hating women and homosexuals.

Heblich said prosecutors "acted with courage'' in filing the motion.

"I think that people looking at this, if nothing else, should take heart in the operation of the system,'' he said.

Lollie Winans

Julie Williams

Darryl Rice