Assistant U.S. Attorney Kacie Weston today urged District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg to affirm the convictions of seven men charged in a brutal 1984 homicide, arguing that "nothing that this court has heard should change its confidence in the outcome of this case."
Weston's closing arguments completed a three-week hearing on motions to vacate convictions in the murder of Catherine Fuller, who was found beaten to death in a Northeast Washington alley. Seven of the eight men convicted in 1985 – the eighth defendant died in jail – have argued that previously undisclosed evidence, recanted witness testimony and other new evidence warrant a reversal.
Responding to comments from one of the defendants' attorneys that prosecutors and police suffered from "tunnel vision" in pursuing a theory that a large group assaulted Fuller, Weston said tunnel vision is only a problem if it involves the wrong tunnel. In the Fuller case, she told Weisberg, an expansive investigation that involved interviews with at least 400 people led police and prosecutors in the right direction.
"[The defendants] could not accept responsibility in 1985 and they cannot accept responsibility now," she said.
Weston said that while the lead prosecutor in the Fuller case, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Goren, did not turn over certain evidence to the defense, it was because he made appropriate and legal determinations about their materiality.
Attorneys for the seven defendants made their closing arguments yesterday. They argued that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, known as Brady evidence, including the identity of a man three witnesses said they saw in the alley and a statement by a woman who implicated yet another man in the crime. That evidence would have supported an alternative theory that only one or two people killed Fuller, as opposed to a large group, defense attorneys argued.
Weston, in her closing arguments, told Weisberg that the defendants failed to meet their burdens of proof on the two claims in their motion – one under the federal Innocence Protection Act, and the other the alleged Brady violation.
Three witnesses who recanted testimony placing the defendants at the scene of the crime weren’t credible, Weston said. They were all cross-examined extensively at trial, so the jury already had an opportunity to decide whether they believed their accounts of Fuller’s death, she said. To find the defendants innocent, she argued, Weisberg would need to not only believe the recanters, but also discredit testimony from every other person who testified at the original trial.
Weston said that any discrepancies in testimony from eyewitnesses about the crime scene identified by the defense – from where Fuller was assaulted to who was attacking her – were reasonable, given that this was a fast-moving and evolving series of events witnessed from different angles and vantage points.
On the Brady claims, Weston said Goren thoroughly investigated the evidence at issue and determined that it wasn’t exculpatory. Prosecutors today would likely have turned over that evidence, Weston said, in light of newer case law favoring greater disclosure. However, she said Goren’s actions should be judged based on what was required at the time, not what was considered acceptable now.
In the first instance, prosecutors did not disclose the identity of James McMillan, a man three witnesses placed around the neighborhood on the day of Fuller’s murder and in the alley before police arrived. His identity was material, defense attorneys argued, because McMillan had a criminal record for assaulting two women and was later convicted in the murder of a woman that bore similarities to Fuller’s death.
Weston said the fact that McMillan committed a murder several years after Fuller’s death should be irrelevant in deciding whether Goren should have turned over his name before the 1985 trial. Weston said Goren investigated McMillan as a possible suspect, but determined he wasn’t. Even if prosecutors had turned over his name, Weston argued it wouldn’t be exculpatory because McMillan’s previous criminal history had nothing to do with whether the other defendants were involved.
In the second instance, prosecutors didn’t disclose a statement a woman named Ammie Davis gave identifying James Blue as the killer. Weston said Davis wasn’t credible and told police information that anyone could have learned from media reports. Goren did investigate Davis’ claim, she said, but couldn’t corroborate her story. Blue was later convicted in Davis’ murder, but Weston said there was no evidence suggesting he killed her because she implicated him in Fuller’s murder.
Weisberg gave both sides until June 8 to submit final statements in writing. He didn’t say when he expected to rule, but ordered the defendants to return to their respective correctional facilities, as opposed to staying at the D.C. jail.