News & Politics

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.

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.

What was your first major trial?

Early on—March 1970—the Pagan motorcycle gang killed two kids who were members of a smaller gang. One of these kids, Richard Newland, got in a fight with a Pagan and won. The Pagans had what they called payback. They abducted Newland and a guy named Lewis Hartless.

They took them to an apartment in Arlington. There were probably a dozen Pagans. And they whipped up on them all afternoon. Eventually they took them out off Route 7 near Lewinsville Road before you get to Reston. It was all fields. Lewis Hartless was a little guy, he had his leg in a cast, he was no threat to anybody. But they killed him. And then Newland. They cut him and killed him. And then they split to the four winds.

How did you track them down?

Two detectives and I, we get this one Pagan who was kind of the weak sister in the crowd, and those two detectives worked on him. They said, “Look, you better tell us where those bodies are. We know you were there.” But we didn’t.

Did he give it up right away?

No. They said, “You got to tell us. That Horan, he is really bad. And he will accuse you of doing the murder. We know you didn’t do it, but he’s got witnesses, he’ll hire witnesses to say you did it.” So finally he says, “Well, I think I might know where they are.”

So we get in the car and ride out Route 7 to Lewinsville Road. He says, “I think they’re somewhere around here.” It’s a wooded hillside, and sure enough there was a path. Well, Ian Rodway and I—Ian was one of my deputies—he and I walk up over that hill and wander around in the woods. And he stumbles across the body of Lewis Hartless—he was chopped up. I couldn’t have gone 30 feet from there and I stumbled across the body of Newland. So we had a double homicide.

Was this the first body you ever saw?

No; as an assistant, one of your requirements for the first murder case you tried was you had to go to the autopsy to watch them get sliced up.

How did you bring the Pagans to trial?

We asked for help from the FBI. They caught gang members from Hollywood, Florida, to Hollywood, California. And finally the last and most important two were caught in Boulder, Colorado: “Head” Akers and Bradley Hinkley.

Did you go for capital punishment?

I was reasonably certain that we could make a death-penalty case, but at the last minute they pleaded guilty. I think we convicted seven total.

How did your practice change in the 1970s?

The big change was drugs. In 1969 there was a big article in a national paper about drug use in suburbia. One of the early paragraphs talked about drug use in Langley High School. The community went bonkers. The story talked about these kids going to school, checking in, getting in their cars, and leaving to do drugs.

Smoking pot or shooting up?

Acid was big.

It was the hippie days.

Yes. Within two or three years we went from 25 drug cases in the courts to 250, 300 drug cases. We were like a lot of suburban communities where the drug culture never had been big, but in the late ’60s it arrived in volume. And the kids became sellers. I mean we had Fairfax County types going to the coast to buy new strains of LSD.

When I think of drugs, I think hard drugs: heroin, cocaine.

Early on, not only did we have marijuana and LSD but at the same time heroin. Where we used to have half a dozen addicts, all of a sudden now we got kids shooting up. We went through a period where they’re doing methadone in volume and they’re winding up as overdose cases. Cocaine really didn’t roll along in much volume until probably the mid-’70s.

Were you taking down street dealers or trying to bust networks?

We used hippie-looking cops for the first time. Our bearded-goatee wonders were out there—God, we had some great undercover guys. And they hit the mother lode on some of them.

How did the parents do?

The first problem we had was education. This was something you better as a parent be aware is out there. I can remember teaching teachers the realities of what they’re going to be seeing.

Two or three nights every week, I’d be speaking in some school. A couple of doctors and I did a class over at George Marshall High School, a three-week program just for schoolteachers. I remember teaching a class at Georgetown University Medical School, because the medical schools were in the same boat. They only looked at drugs for therapeutic use. They weren’t even thinking in terms of the potential for widespread nontherapeutic use. It was really fascinating times to try to deal with that.

What about treatment?

There were no treatment facilities—the only one was down in Kentucky. If you lucked out, you could get a bed down there. And eventually Second Genesis was born out of the county’s drug program, so we had some limited options.

At that point you were raising children yourself.

I have three boys. They were just starting middle school at that time.

Were you worried about them getting into the drug culture?

You become very suspicious and very much an analyst of behavior: Are they showing any signs of drug use? I looked for all the things I’d been telling teachers and parents to look out for.

How did they wind up?

All three college graduates. I got a Virginia grad, a VPI grad, and a Mount St. Mary’s grad. The oldest is a lawyer out here—former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Prince William and practicing law right here across the street, a really good trial lawyer. My second is a salesman. And the third guy was with the government; now he works for one of these high-tech firms doing consultant work.

How did the growth of Fairfax change your practice?

The police department has grown correspondingly. When I was first commonwealth’s attorney, there was one homicide investigator—that was it. And that guy had worked every homicide for the prior ten years. Now there must be eight homicide investigators.

Has the crime rate changed?

Since the early ’90s the overall numbers have stayed relatively constant. We would rarely do more than 20 homicides a year in Fairfax County. I don’t think we’ve cracked 20 in the last seven. Robbery is down compared to the numbers you had in ’90. Rape is down. Nowadays you’ve got this huge influx of identity theft; financial crimes tend to be increasing.

How have you stayed connected?

I’ve always preached police/prosecutor cooperation—the whole system works better when you’re working hand in hand. I had an understanding with the Fairfax Police Department that I wanted to be notified of every homicide. I got a lot of phone calls at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. But that goes with the turf.

Which cases that you prosecuted stand out?

When capital punishment came back in ’77, my first case was a murder for hire done by Jimmy Clark. He got hired to kill a gas-station owner by the guy’s wife. I tried that with a jury. And that was the first Fairfax County death penalty in probably 30 years.

Have you always been a proponent of the death penalty?

Yes, but it should be a seldom-used penalty. You get some prosecutors who automatically go for it. I never have. I’ve got to be satisfied that it’s a case you can look the 12 citizens in the eye and say, “This one’s bad enough.” It’s part of the prosecutor’s burden.

Did Jimmy Clark get death?

Jimmy Clark got death from a Fairfax jury. He appealed it, lost, filed habeas corpus and lost, then filed federal habeas, and the federal court ruled that his attorneys were adequate for trial but inadequate for sentencing. It came back here. My thought was we’d retry him, but the circuit court didn’t agree. They went ahead and changed his sentence to life. And I had no right to appeal. So Jimmy Clark is still in the state pen.

What was your first successful capital case resulting in execution?

Richard Lee Whitley. He killed a gal I used to think was an elderly woman, but she was in her early sixties—kind of young. Just a brutal killing, sexually violated her, umbrellas, bad things. He was the first person I actually executed—that had to be early ’80s.

And the next?

The next one was Dwayne Allen Wright. He tried to abduct and rape a woman over in Springfield. She begged and ran on him, but he killed her, stole her car. That was his third murder. He actually killed a guy in Maryland because the guy wouldn’t give him his wedding ring. He killed a drug dealer in DC, so I had all of that plus killing this girl; she was such a nice, nice gal. That would have been late ’80s.

What case still bothers you?

The Melissa Brannen abduction. She was the girl at the Christmas party with her mother. Her grandfather had a great video of her where she’s pirouetting in a Christmas dress. Her mother noticed that she was missing. She was down a hallway and all of a sudden she was gone, five years old. And she looked something like my granddaughter—I’ve always identified with that—but she’s never been found. I tried the guy who abducted her in the late ’80s.

What was his name?

Caleb Hughes. I think about that child—her mother was just a really splendid person.

What did the guy get?

Fifty years. We couldn’t charge him with murder—we couldn’t show where the murder occurred. Since we didn’t have the venue to try a murder case, we tried him for abduction with intent to defile. The jury gave him 50 years.

You couldn’t break him?

He was hard as nails. Anyone that could have taken that child has to be a hard guy.

If you didn’t have the body or a witness, how did you make the case?

There was a great hairs-and-fibers man from the FBI named Doug Dietrich, one of the best witnesses I’ve ever seen in a courtroom. Melissa had on a Sesame Street costume kind of outfit, a blue acrylic top, red Scotch-plaid skirt, and we had blue acrylic fibers from the front seat of his automobile, a bunch of the red cotton fibers. Only the FBI could have done it.

Was that enough?

Her mother was wearing a blue/black dyed rabbit-hair coat. We find, on the front seat of Caleb Hughes’s car, two rabbit-hair fibers. That’s what the case was constructed on—fibers.

You also tried Mir Aimal Kasi.

The murders occurred in ’93 when I was trying Bobby Lee Ramdass for killing a 7-Eleven clerk, because I remember somebody handed a note, “Shooting at the CIA,” and there were a number dead.

Was that an important case for you?

Oh, yeah. That was such a sensational killing by a sensational killer.

And you got to work with FBI agent Brad Garrett, who brought Kasi back from Pakistan.

On that plane ride, when he tells Garrett what he did and why he did it, he told the story with great pride. He told Garrett he had long thought of what he was going to do, that he would come back some morning and do the same thing just to stick it in the ear of the CIA and the Americans. He was a dedicated terrorist.

He was convicted and sentenced to death. Do you get satisfaction from a conviction like that?

Oh, yeah. You get so much more involved in these things by the time you finally go to bat on them. Then you’ve got the challenge in the courtroom. I like to go up against good lawyers, good trial lawyers, because, you know, they work you out. And that’s good, that makes the system work.

How have the judges changed over the years?

That’s one I probably should stay away from.

Oh, come on.

You don’t see as many strong sentencers today as you used to. We had two guys who were on the bench at the same time—Bruce Bach, who was the chief judge of the circuit court, and J. Howell Brown—and the prisoners used to call them the Killer B’s.

Want to name some who are not so strong?

No, thanks. I made the remark one night to some group that if you luck out as a criminal in Fairfax, there are a couple of wimps up there. And of course that made the papers: “Horan said there’s a couple of wimps in the Circuit Court.” And it was true.

The DC sniper case—didn’t you prosecute that yourself?

I got Lee Boyd Malvo. Paul Hebert in Stafford County got John Allen Muhammad. We were kind of sharing witnesses at times, we were sharing evidence—a fascinating case to try.


I would say Malvo’s essential defense was brainwashing. Malvo said Muhammad made him do it, which the jury rejected, and they should have rejected it. The brains of that outfit was really Malvo—smart, clever, and he is the one who scouted out the areas where they did their killings.

Is this what you argued in court?

Yes. The truth is he killed most of the people. That day when they did the five, when they killed the four people in Montgomery County and the one fellow in DC, they were shot from the trunk of that car. Anybody shot from the trunk of their car, it was Malvo; it wasn’t Muhammad. I’ve been in the trunk of that car. It fit Malvo like a glove; it didn’t fit Muhammad—Muhammad’s a much bigger guy.

You asked for the death penalty, but he got life without parole. Why?

He had a great break genetically. By the time I tried him he’s 18 years old; he did the crimes when he was 17, but he looked 15. Those lawyers, they did a heck of a job. They suited him up in pastel shades. He sat there in those pastel shades, sweaters, he looked like a preppy. But not a college preppy—he looked like a high-school preppy. And about the third day of trial I say to Ray Morrogh [Horan’s assistant, who has now replaced him], “Look at that son of a bitch, sitting over there doodling.” And I said, “This trial’s going to last for a bunch more weeks. Do you think he can pull it off?”

So it was an act?

That jury would go out of the room, and he would banter with the bailiffs and laugh and talk to the lawyers, but the minute that jury came in that room, that preppy is sitting there—doodling.

He held that for six weeks—it was a remarkable performance. I was always very impressed with his ability to do that.

Your last case was Alfredo Prieto, who was accused of raping Rachael Raver and shooting her and her boyfriend, Warren Fulton, back in 1988. The first trial was a hung jury. You tried it again in January and got the death penalty. You came across as the avenging angel—“You did it, you gotta pay.” Does that motivate you?

I think on the really bad cases it’s a big factor. For the ordinary run-of-the-mill crime, I’m not sure it really plays a role. But on the really serious—any rape, murder, for example—it plays a big role.

Do you get angry?


How do you deal with that in court?

You’ve got to keep it down. You get to know the families of victims, and I’ve always said that the nicest people I know have been the families of victims. This Prieto case was a great example—the Fulton family and the Raver family, they’re just such nice, nice people. You really have to guard against becoming swayed by your emotions in the case.

Having observed you in the court, I think you manage to communicate your outrage, but you don’t pound your fist, you don’t point your finger—there’s no histrionics, but it comes through.

It helps to really believe in what you’re doing. And I think a certain amount of passion comes out of that because I’ve developed a certain amount of animosity toward the crime and the criminal. The longer I’m with the case, the more that kind of builds up. I mean, the thought’s constantly going through your head, it’s such a horrible thing this guy did, that by the time you get to closing argument you’ve developed a genuine dislike.

It must be a fine line to feel it and yet contain it.

Yep. You don’t want to sound like a raving lunatic in the courtroom.

With the Prieto case over, what will you be doing?

I’m in the process of unloading 40 years of the office and deciding what I should leave in the files and what it’s time to throw out. I think I’ve probably tried my last case—I’m done.

Is that hard?

I really had mixed emotions going in there for that verdict, because I’m sitting there waiting for the jury to file in and it suddenly dawned on me: I’m never going to do this again. And it hit me, and my stomach was churning. I’ve done it for so long, and I’ve done it so many times.

A lot of prosecutors in offices of this size never go into court. The courtroom is my inspiration, it’s what I love about this job—it’s going in there and accepting the challenge of proving what you say happened. And the fact that I’m never going to do that again was a jolt to my system.

So why quit?

My hearing is what did it to me. There are certain women lawyers I can’t hear in the courtroom. I had trouble in the sniper case with Judge Rousch, who tends to be very soft-spoken. I’ve always been afraid I’d miss something important. Once I decided I was going to have to stop going in the courtroom, then it was an easy decision.

Was there a particular trial or incident?

It was gradual. I found that I really had to strain at bench conferences in which we would have whispered discussions. I guess my hearing, particularly my right ear, is failing. I was with a Marine Corps fighter squadron for a couple of years; there were signs all over the place: “Wear your earplugs. Do not come in here without some covering for your ears.” I was about 27, 28, something like that.

And you thought you were invincible.

I was around too many whining jet engines too many times for too many years.

So what’s in the future?

I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. The National District Attorneys Association has talked to me about lecturing prosecutors; I’ve given some thought to maybe doing some lecturing in law schools. But we’ll have to see how it plays. And I’ll play some golf, see how that works.

What was your most satisfying case?

Probably Melissa Brannen, because it was a very difficult case to try. And it was a purely circumstantial case.

But you didn’t get the death sentence for Caleb Hughes.

I always thought the day would come when we would find Melissa Brannen. And then I’d want to try him for murder.

What will you miss about the job?

It’s a fascinating way to make a living. One of the things I will miss is that there was something new all the time.

What did you take away from Fairfax County?

It is a remarkably law-abiding community. We see it in the crime rate, we see it in the juries. These are people who believe in obeying the laws. That has not changed over 40 years.

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here

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