Updated at 5:38 p.m.
In 1985, Michele Roberts, the veteran Washington criminal defense attorney, defended one of 10 men on trial for sexually assaulting and killing a woman in Northeast D.C. the year before.
On Tuesday, Roberts was back in court, testifying that prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence that could have dramatically changed the course of the case.
Roberts was trial division deputy director of the D.C. Public Defender Service at the time, and her client and another defendant were acquitted by a District of Columbia Superior Court jury. Eight of the defendants were convicted. Seven of those men – the eighth died in jail – are now moving to vacate those convictions or, in the alternative, asking presiding Judge Frederick Weisberg to order new trial.
They claim that they have new proof that prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to the defense in violation of court rules. Roberts testified that prosecutors never told her that several witnesses gave statements that seemed to connect two other men to the crime. That evidence, she said, would have offered a "counter-narrative" to the government's case that defense attorneys didn't have at the time.
Roberts, now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said Tuesday on the stand that “there was nothing like that case in my practice,” both in terms of how Fuller died and the investigation that followed. She was questioned by Williams & Connolly partner Robert Cary, an attorney for one of the defendants.
At the heart of the defendants’ motion are statements from several witnesses at the time who said they saw a man named James McMillan in the alley just before police arrived on the scene. They also point to a statement from a witness implicating another man named James Blue in the crime. Neither man was charged. McMillan was later convicted in a murder that the defendants’ attorneys say was nearly identical to the Fuller murder, and Blue was convicted in the subsequent murder of the woman who previously told police he was involved in Fuller's death.
None of that information was turned over to defense attorneys, Roberts testified Tuesday. She said that the government’s position was that a group committed the crime, and evidence pointing to only one or two perpetrators would have helped the defense. “We had nothing to counter the government’s theory of the case,” she said. She added later that had she had access to those statements and other information at issue now, “I certainly would have used much of it, if not all of it.”
The U.S. attorney’s office has defended its handling of the case, arguing that prosecutors properly exercised their discretion in deciding what evidence to turn over to defense attorneys. On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sweeney asked Roberts about the trial judge’s ruling at the time that certain types of information defense attorneys requested regarding who police and prosecutors had interviewed wasn’t Brady evidence.
Roberts said she remembered the discussions at the time, but not the court’s ruling. Cary asked if the specific statements tying McMillan and Blue to the crime came up during those discussions; she said they did not.
The hearing began April 23 and is expected to last at least another two weeks. Besides Roberts’ testimony today, the defense’s witnesses to date have included several men and women who recanted earlier statements tying the defendants to Fuller’s murder.