Updated at 4:31 p.m.
In a closely watched case, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge today upheld the convictions of seven men charged in the 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller.
Fuller, 48, was found fatally beaten and sodomized in an alley in Northeast Washington on Oct. 1, 1984. Police and prosecutors alleged that a group of young men had robbed and assaulted her, and, following a lengthy investigation, netted dozens of suspects. In addition to several guilty pleas, a jury convicted eight men in late 1985.
In 2010, seven of those defendants filed motions to vacate their convictions; the eighth defendant died in jail. A three-week hearing began in late April before Judge Frederick Weisberg. Weisberg, in a 40-page decision (PDF) released today, wrote that he was "convinced that the totality of evidence pointing to the guilt of these seven petitioners, and others…remains – as the Court of Appeals first characterized it – 'overwhelming.'"
Several attorneys for the defendants said today that they planned to appeal. In a statement, the U.S. attorney's office said that: "We are satisfied that justice has been done and hope that today's ruling settles this matter and brings some measure of peace to Ms. Fuller's family."
"Nearly thirty years after the brutal murder of Catherine Fuller shocked our community, seven men found guilty of her killing sought to overturn their convictions on a number of grounds, including unfounded allegations of misconduct by police and prosecutors," the office said. "Today the court rejected those claims and reaffirmed that the evidence of these murderers' guilt is overwhelming."
In his opinion, Weisberg noted that advances in technology, especially DNA testing, have led a number of courts to overturn what were later deemed wrongful convictions. However, he wrote, "[t]his case is not one of them."
The defendants' case was two-fold. First, in a claim under the Innocence Protection Act, they argued that recanting witnesses and other evidence showed that they were innocent. Second, they argued that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence in violation of the precedent set in Brady v. Maryland.
Weisberg didn't credit the recanting witnesses. Without more proof that the defendants were innocent, he found that the Brady claim lost much of its heft, since attorneys had to prove that any evidence prosecutors failed to disclose would have changed the outcome of the case. Weisberg found that the evidence at issue, on its own, wasn't strong enough that it would have changed the outcome.
During a three-week hearing that began April 23, Weisberg heard testimony from several witnesses who recanted their testimony, including two men who pleaded guilty to being part of Fuller's murder, Calvin Alston and Harry "Derrick" Bennett. Weisberg wrote that he didn't believe Alston or Bennett, writing that it was "nothing short of preposterous" for them to claim that they were forced by police to give statements, based on the other evidence and witnesses implicating them in the crime.
Alston and Bennett's motives for recanting are unknown, Weisberg wrote, but he speculated that perhaps they felt "burdened with guilt from having benefitted themselves by sending their friends to prison."
The other recanting witnesses, Weisberg wrote, didn't help the petitioners either. One woman repeatedly said during the hearing she had lied at trial, but wouldn't give any more details or explain what she meant. Another witness, Melvin Montgomery, was supposed to recant, based on a written affidavit he had given, but on the stand denied that he had lied during the original investigation.
The Brady claim wasn't as easy to dismiss as the Innocence Protection Act claim, Weisberg wrote, but in the end he found that it, too, failed. The defendants argued that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that offered at least two alternate theories of the crime.
In the first instance, the defendants claimed prosecutors didn't turn over statements implicating a man named James Blue in Fuller's murder. Weisberg credited testimony from investigators at the time that there was no truth to the allegations against Blue.
In the second instance, prosecutors admitted that they did not turn over several statements putting a man named James McMillan on the scene. The defendants argued that the McMillan evidence was particularly relevant because McMillan was convicted in a fatal attack of another woman around the same area as Fuller's murder. Weisberg found that the McMillan evidence wasn't material because there was no other evidence supporting the theory that he killed Fuller. Furthermore, Weisberg wrote, even if McMillan had been on the scene, that evidence wouldn’t clear the defendants.
"The coincidence of McMillan's presence in the alley and his attacks on other women in that neighborhood around the same time might have provided useful ammunition in the hands of ten clever defense counsel at trial, but it doesn't override the overwhelming evidence of the guilt of these petitioners or undermine the court's confidence in the jury's determination of their guilt at trial," Weisberg wrote.
One of the convicted men, Clifton Yarborough, also made a separate case for having his conviction overturned, arguing that he suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that his attorney at trial didn't present evidence about how his low intelligence level would make him more susceptible to police coercion.
Weisberg found that Yarborough was barred from bringing his claim because he had already brought it once before, unsuccessfully, in 1995. Still, Weisberg weighed the merits of the motion and found that Yarborough wasn't denied effective assistance of counsel. Yarborough argued that his attorney should have developed and presented evidence at trial about his intelligence level and the connection between intelligence and false confessions. Weisberg wrote that even if Yarborough’s attorney had introduced that evidence – he noted, though, that expert testimony on false confessions is “largely inadmissible” – it wouldn’t have changed the outcome because there was significant other evidence implicating him in the crime.
During the hearing earlier this year, Yarborough testified that police beat him up and coerced him into giving false statements. Weisberg wrote that "[t]he evidence fails to bear out any of these extraordinary claims."
Reached by phone today, solo practitioner Jenifer Wicks, who represented petitioner Charles Turner, said she was still reading the opinion but would appeal. Miller & Chevalier attorney Barry Pollack, who represented petitioner Christopher Turner, also said he would appeal.
Turner, Pollack said, "waited 27 years for justice in this case and is disappointed that he'll have to wait a little longer, but has no doubt that ultimately the appellate court will reverse this decision."
Other attorneys for the defendants, including counsel at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, could not immediately be reached this afternoon for comment. The four other defendants were Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse and Kelvin Smith. Six of the defendants are still in jail. Christopher Turner was released on parole in 2010.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Clifton Yarborough’s attorney presented evidence about his intelligence level at trial in 1985.