Updated at 3:37 p.m.
Nearly three decades after Catherine Fuller was murdered in a Northeast Washington alley, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge is being asked to take a second look at the convictions of a group of men charged in the crime.
Fuller, 48, was found beaten to death and sodomized on Oct. 1, 1984, in an alley off of the corner of H and 8th Streets. Following a high-profile investigation that netted more than a dozen suspects and, according to reports from the time, put the entire city on edge, a Superior Court jury convicted eight men in 1985.
In 2010, however, attorneys for seven of the defendants - the eighth died in jail - moved to reopen the case, claiming they had reason to believe prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. withheld key evidence, including testimony from witnesses that put two other men on the scene as possible suspects. The U.S. attorney's office has defended its handling of the case.
Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg heard opening statements Monday morning. Williams & Connolly partner Robert Cary, arguing on behalf of the defendants, including his client Clifton Yarborough, said that there was an “avalanche” of newly discovered evidence that prosecutors should have turned over to defense attorneys at the time.
At heart of the defendants’ motion are statements witnesses gave to police that placed two other men at the scene, but were never turned over to defense attorneys. Cary, in his opening statement, detailed how three witnesses told police they saw a man named James McMillan in the alley. McMillan, whose house faced the alley, is serving a life sentence in the slaying of another woman, where the crime was “nearly identical” to Fuller’s case, Cary said.
In another instance, Cary said police took statements from a witness who implicated a man named James Blue in the crime. The witness told police that Blue “beat the [expletive]” out of Fuller; Blue later went to jail after he was convicted in the death of that witness, Cary said.
Police and prosecutors in the case had “tunnel vision,” Cary said, which kept them focused on the defendants even in the face of contradictory evidence. He stressed that the defendants’ case was not about whether prosecutors acted “in good faith or bad faith...It’s about the evidence here.” He said that while the prosecution would argue that the evidence wasn’t material, the jury should have been allowed to see it and decide.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sweeney said his office was standing by the original prosecution theory that the entire group of defendants committed the crime, as well as the prosecutors’ exercise of discretion in deciding what evidence to turn over to defense counsel. Prosecutors had argued that the group forced Fuller off the street and into an alley, where they beat her and shoved a pipe up her rectum.
The jury was presented with a number of statements and witnesses, some of which were contradictory, but Sweeney said they “carefully considered” the evidence before returning a verdict. He noted that several original defendants were acquitted, a sign that the jury was able to sort through all of the evidence that was presented at trial. “Their verdict was: You were there. You participated,” Sweeney said.
He said that the investigation wasn’t “perfect,” but added that that’s never the case. “Things perhaps could have been done differently,” he said, but prosecutors properly exercised their discretion as far as the evidence.
As far as statements putting McMillan on the scene, Sweeney said that he was an initial suspect, but that the evidence didn’t support an arrest. The fact that McMillan was later convicted in a crime that bore similarities to Fuller’s death was “a terrible irony,” he said, but the prosecution planned to dispute the idea that they were identical.
A team of attorneys from several large law firms, along with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, are representing the defendants. Each man has his own attorney, but they’re mounting a common case. In a brief supporting the motion to vacate, Miller & Chevalier attorney Barry Pollack, who is representing defendant Christopher Turner, said the government had demonstrated a pattern of violating the defendants’ constitutional rights.
“The Government in this case repeatedly and egregiously failed to meet its Brady obligations,” he wrote, adding later that “[t]he Court should not continue this decades-long pattern of injustice.”
Besides the Brady claims, Cary is also arguing that Yarborough suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel, noting that his original attorney never tested Yarborough’s educational level to show that he was “vulnerable” and would be “suggestible” to telling police what he thought they wanted to hear.
Cary said Yarborough’s statement to police, which he argued was false, along with other recanted testimony supported the defendants’ claim that the “this was already a verdict of questionable validity.”
The hearing is expected to last at least three weeks, if not longer.
Yarborough was the first witness to testify after opening statements. He said that he wasn’t involved in Fuller’s murder, and accused police of pushing him around and threatening him in order to convince him to admit to the crime. Yarborough said police detectives forced him to admit that he understood his Miranda rights when, in fact, he did not. Later in the interrogation, he said, one officer pushed him into a cabinet so hard that he thought his knee was broken.
Yarborough is expected to continue testifying Monday afternoon. The other six defendants – Kelvin Smith, Levy Rouse, Timothy Catlett, Charles Turner, Russell Overton and Christopher Turner – were also in court. Christopher Turner was released from jail on parole in 2010, but the others were brought in shackled and wearing orange uniforms.