Prosecutors drop hate-crime charges in lesbian hiker murders
Prosecutors said Monday that a Columbia, Md., man had been pursuing one of two lesbian hikers in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park when he abducted them, bound them with duct tape, and slashed them to death. Darrell David Rice, 35, kept Julianne Williams alive longer than Laura "Lollie" Winans, and he tortured her before she died near a creek-side campsite in 1996, assistant U.S. attorney Tom Bondurant said at a hearing in federal court. "Julie was the object of the attack," Bondurant said afterward. "Her personal belongings are still missing." Dressed in a black-and-white jail jumpsuit, Rice sat quietly during the court hearing as lawyers discussed his previous altercations with women.
Lawyers agreed to drop two of the four murder counts against Rice charging him with the slayings of Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, because of their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation. The counts would have allowed prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties for Rice if he was convicted. But now that the prosecution is seeking the death penalty against Rice, Bondurant said the hate-crime charges are no longer needed. "If for some reason the jury recommends a lesser murder conviction, then those enhancements would be added again," he said after the hearing.
U.S. district judge Norman K. Moon closed portions of Monday's hearing, saying that psychiatric records and other evidence presented by prosecutors would taint potential jurors who might determine Rice's fate. "The evidence would be so prejudicial to be associated with the defendant in the public's mind," Moon said before sending out of the courtroom three reporters and a victim witness coordinator working with the U.S. attorney's office.
During the open portion of the hearing, Bondurant said that sometime between May 24 and May 25, 1996, Rice encountered the women in the park, stripping them of their clothes and tying and retying their hands, even ripping out the hair of one of the victims. "We don't know how long this took," Bondurant said. "It could have been hours or even a day."
Rice, who was jailed on an unrelated kidnapping charge when he was indicted on April 9, 2002, told authorities the women "deserved to die because they were lesbian [expletives]."
The Roanoke Times sought to keep the entire hearing open. Stan Barnhill, a lawyer representing the publisher of the Times, told Moon that the defense had to prove that potential juries would be prejudiced by the information presented before the court could be closed. "If you close these doors, the public will never know whether justice was served," Barnhill said.
Defense attorney Gerald T. Zerkin argued that the information from the hearing probably will be released to the public eventually. "There's going to be a trial at some point," Zerkin said. "The public will not be denied this forever, but it will be denied now."
Barnhill said afterward that he might seek to appeal Moon's decision to close the hearing and force the court to release transcripts of the portions that were sealed.
Rice has been in jail since 1998, when he was convicted of abducting a female bicyclist in Shenandoah National Park the year before. In that case Rice was accused of verbally and physically assaulting the woman, trying to kill her by running her over with his truck. Investigators pursued the case for six years before charging Rice with the deaths of Williams and Winans, tracking 15,000 tips that included interviews with hikers who used the Appalachian Trail at about the same time the women were killed.