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What I’ve Learned: Robert Horan
For 40 years, Robert Horan put murderers and rapists away. He leaves office with continuing sympathy for their victims—and no regrets about those he sent to death row. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published May 1, 2008
The product of a Catholic upbringing and then the Marines, Robert Horan became a very successful—and feared—prosecutor. Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.
Ask any local criminal where he or she would least like to get arrested, and the answer will be Virginia, especially Fairfax County. The commonwealth has tough laws and strict judges, and for the past 40 years Fairfax had Robert Horan, the most feared prosecutor in the area.

Strolling through the courthouse, having a beer with cops, or relaxing at home in Clifton, Horan is a gentle, unassuming soul who’s been married for 50 years to Monica, with whom he raised three boys. But in front of juries, with rapists or murderers in the dock, Horan is the avenging angel. He has sent half a dozen men to the execution chamber.

When he took office as commonwealth’s attorney in 1967, Fairfax was a rural county. Dulles International and the Beltway were just a few years old. He’s seen suburban tracts fill the farms, watched villages like Herndon grow into small cities.

In that time, the crime rate has remained constant, in part because of Horan and his team of prosecutors. He stepped down as chief prosecutor in December and tried his last case in January, when he sent another murderer to death row.

In a conference room in Fairfax County’s new court complex, Horan took a break from sorting through his files to talk about what he’s learned.

You’ve argued for the death penalty in many cases and sent men to death row. Did you ever see an execution?

Yeah, way back. I kind of forget who—I went down to watch one of the guys in the electric chair on Spring Street in Richmond. It’s been torn down.

What was it like for you?

It was interesting. You know, the guys who get capital punishment tend to be such a horrible breed of human being.

How does it fit with your Catholic beliefs?

A lot of Catholics question me about that. The Pope has expressed opposition to use of the death penalty. But I’d say it’s not an article of faith. It’s a policy, but it’s not an order. And I would imagine there’s a world of blue-collar Catholics who are of my persuasion. I have some good friends who are very much in line with the church’s policy on it. We talk about it.

Do you lose sleep over it?

Nope. Unless the law is immoral, which it’s not, I’ve got a duty as part of the oath of office to enforce the law as it’s written.

How important was the church when you were growing up in New Jersey?

My father was out of a family of staunch Irish Roman Catholics. And the big thing was the priesthood. His older brother became the priest. No other kids got to go to college. My father, who was really quite a good student, didn’t want to be a priest, so he never went to college. But he became a bug about college.What was it like growing up in New Brunswick?

It was a ball. It was a very ethnic town. Athletics was a big deal. There was a gigantic park with athletic fields. I lived there and at Rutgers gymnasium. It was a great place to grow up, and I had some great role models.

Like who?

Like Bud Murphy, the football coach at St. Peter’s High School. He was a staunch disciplinarian, but he was also a tremendous motivator. He was the original strong-willed Irishman. He was a great believer in education. He would get all these guys college scholarships.

Where did you go to college?

Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. It was a marvelous place to go to school. The faculty—they really had some excellent teachers. Of course, it was run by the priesthood—there were guys who’d been there 30, 40 years. They were great educators.

I see a line of people who made great impressions on you: your father, the coach, the professors.

I guess my formation culminated with the Korean War. It was still on when I came out of college. So I enlisted in the Marine Corps because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I served four years of active duty, my last down in Parris Island. I met my wife down there.

One of the bigger influences on my life was a colonel by the name of Oscar Peatross. He was one of the Marine Corps’s real heroes. I remember talking to him late one Saturday night on Parris Island. He looked at me and said, “You sound kind of down to me, Horan.” He says, “Don’t be down. You can get up.”

He says, “We find that the Marine Corps is made up of 99 percent Marines and 1 percent bullshitters. In peacetime, the bullshitters tend to be the ones you hear from. But I waded ashore on Guadalcanal in ’42. I looked all the way down the beach to my right and all the way up the beach to my left. There wasn’t a bullshitter in sight.”

And that was Peatross.

Why didn’t you stay in the Marines?

I was finishing up my fourth year in the Marine Corps, and my wife was due. My next duty station was going to be Okinawa, so I pretty much decided it was time to go. But where?

We used to have a theory among Marine Corps lieutenants in those days: When in doubt, go to law school. I fortunately got into Georgetown. I graduated in the summer of ’60.Did you have an idea of what kind of law you wanted to practice?

I wanted to be a trial lawyer—that was my goal. I started with a law firm over in Arlington, Handy & Swinburne. They were essentially a property firm. Any cases that had to go to court, I got them.

Back in those days if you practiced law in Arlington, you practiced all over Northern Virginia. So you got to know the Fairfax court, the Prince William court, the Alexandria court. You knew judges in all of them.

Why didn’t you stay in private practice?

I got my fill of trying civil cases. There was a job opening in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in ’63. I applied, got it, and became an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

Who was the commonwealth’s attorney?

Ralph Louk, one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. He set in motion the creation of the county attorney’s office, which would be a county agency, not a state agency. They split off the commonwealth attorney’s office to handle the criminal cases. And on March 1 of ’67, Louk stepped down and I became the commonwealth’s attorney. On the same day, Dexter Oden became the first county attorney.

Isn’t it an elected post?

I was appointed to fill Louk’s unexpired term, and I had to run that November.

What was Fairfax County like back then?

It was essentially rural Virginia. The Marketplace at Seven Corners had only been there a couple of years, and people still thought that was far out. If you were going to Seven Corners, you were going way out in the country.

No malls at Tysons Corner.

Tysons was still a crossroads. There was a meatpacker on one corner and a gasoline station on the other. The other two corners were not occupied. And dairy farms—we had a bunch of farms, particularly out around Chantilly, Centreville. That was farm territory.

What was it like in Fairfax City?

Fairfax City was a town within Fairfax County—it hadn’t become a city yet. And I can remember knowing almost all the lawyers. I think I knew every policeman in Fairfax, and I knew almost every county employee; we all worked in the same place, interacted with one another in that red brick building. Now there are three huge county buildings out there. It’s amazing in 40 years what’s transformed this place.

What kind of cases did you have then?

The same kind we have today, just fewer of them. I started with five assistants, and they were in court every day. Virginia has this longstanding desire to do criminal prosecution on the cheap. I’ve learned to live with it. People would constantly say, “Why don’t you get more people?” We don’t get more people because the legislature won’t pay for more people.

How many lawyers do you have now?

People don’t want to believe that we do the volume we do with 25 lawyers, but we do it. Every staffing-standards study shows that this office probably is entitled to 7 to 14 more lawyers. But the legislature, they do it on the cheap.


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 05/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles