A Case of Conviction

This article first ran on May 6, 2001.

It’s hard to convey, more than 16 years later, the impact Catherine Fuller’s murder had on Washington. It’s hard to remember how different the city was in 1984, still on the innocent side of the plague of drug violence and social dysfunction that would make crimes like this one all too familiar in years to come.

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On Oct. 1, 1984, Fuller, 48-year-old cleaning woman and mother of six, had set off to get a prescription with $50 in cash in a change purse tucked in her bra. She wound up, minus the cash, in an alley just off a busy Northeast street kicked and beaten to death. The horror of the crime was intensified when police said that this tiny woman who weighed less than 100 pounds was murdered by a swarm of gang members — as many as 30 people. Her liver was shattered, four ribs broken, a lung punctured. A pipe stuck up her rectum pierced her intestine and penetrated 11 inches into her abdominal cavity. All of this happened while she was alive and — according to police — screaming for help while her assailants held her down and cursed her.

A medical examiner said Fuller died between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., and that any number of her wounds, taken alone, would have been fatal in and of themselves. The motive could only be inferred: the $50 and some jewelry, quickly sold on the street.

So many killers, so much brutality focused on such a small target, for so little reason. People sensed the city had passed into some new and terrible era, and a decade of subsequent headlines would prove them correct.

Fuller’s death and the resulting trial consumed the community, and it consumed me more than most. I had grown up visiting the neighborhood, knew it well still. Helping to report the story was one of my first assignments at The Post.

Ten defendants, from 16 to 25 years old, eventually stood trial in D.C. Superior Court. Eight were convicted, two acquitted. Three others made a plea bargain. The heart of the prosecution’s case was the testimony of some of the accused against the others. Most of the defendants presented alibis, but they were supported not by time cards or school records but the word of loved ones, and so were discounted.

I was in the courtroom on Dec. 17, 1985, when the jurors returned with the verdicts. The foreman said “Guilty” so many times I stopped counting. For me, almost 16 years later, each one of those “guilty” declarations still hits with the force of a hammer.

Perhaps that is the hardest to explain of all.

When I was in high school, my family shopped on the H Street corridor in Northeast, then a flourishing business district. For years, I transferred to a bus on the corner of Eighth and H to get to my grandmother’s house.

When I heard that this was where a gang savaged a middle-aged woman in broad daylight, I was stunned. True, the neighborhood had declined since the looting and arson following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But 16 years later, the street was still bustling.

Beating someone to death is by nature a noisy enterprise — especially when it is a group endeavor. Fuller was killed on the busiest day of the month, a day welfare and Social Security checks arrive and people dash to the bank and to the store to pay their bills. And yet, as I went door to door and corner to corner in the neighborhood, I couldn’t find anyone who had heard or seen anything.

Police said people were afraid to talk — afraid of the Eighth and H Crew. But I couldn’t find anybody who even knew about the gang.

So I had a question in my mind to begin with, a suspicion fueled by my own memories of distrusting and fearing the police as a child. I grew up in Prince George’s County. Every black person I knew then was frightened of the police and believed they unjustly beat blacks, even killed them, a belief bolstered by stories repeated on the street and reported in the news.

When I strayed into trouble, becoming a drug user and shoplifter myself, I had a personal connection with a netherworld of young toughs, muggers and thieves -- boys like many of those charged with the Fuller murder. And I would learn firsthand what it was to be on the business end of a police investigation.

When I was 21, I was arrested for possession of heroin with intent to distribute, spent the summer in a North Carolina jail and got five years’ probation. On the night I was arrested, the police made an offer: They would drop or reduce charges if I gave them information about drug dealers.

I considered giving them names. I even thought about making something up. In the end I didn’t lie, but long after I straightened out my life, I still remembered how close I came -- a memory that became vivid when I realized that the case against the Fuller defendants was based largely on the testimony of kids in trouble.

My vague sense that something was wrong with the official story became a conviction. Years later, through an odd coincidence, my conviction would blossom into a six-year crusade.

A Terrible Mistake?

During their nine-month investigation into Catherine Fuller’s death, the police questioned hundreds of people. They arrested 17 youths, eventually charging 13 with various degrees of murder.

Four of the defendants admitted involvement and fingered others as having been a party to the crime. At trial, five additional witnesses testified they had seen the beating and recognized some of the attackers, or had heard the defendants talking about it.

But I remained uncertain. Of the four who confessed, one, Clifton Yarborough, was a 16-year-old special ed student, a slow learner who was questioned for 19 hours straight by police with no attorney or parent present, and later claimed he was beaten and confessed under duress. The three who pleaded guilty named names in exchange for lesser charges.

None of the five prosecution witnesses named every defendant, though they all agreed on the one they said was the leader — a 19-year-old named Levy Rouse. Before the trial, I had gone to a crumbling Northeast building looking for one of those witnesses, a young woman named Carrie Eleby, whom the cops called essential to their investigation. Eleby had had a short-term relationship with one of the defendants, Kelvin Smith, and claimed that he was the father of one of her children.

I couldn’t find Eleby, but I found a woman in her thirties who said she was a friend. “I can’t believe they took her word” about Smith’s involvement, the woman said, referring to police. “She bragged that . . . she was going to [expletive] him up because he didn’t want to claim that damn baby.”

When all those guilty verdicts rang out in the courtroom, I could only pray, but not quite believe, that this prosecution hadn’t all been a terrible mistake.

The next week, I had other stories to worry about, and I tried to put it behind me. For nine years I was mostly successful.

A Letter, Then a Vision

In 1995 I returned to the Post after a six-month leave and was looking for a story to write. On my first day back I pitched the idea of doing a follow-up on the Fuller case to my editor. When I returned to my desk, I found a fan letter of sorts, inspired by a book I had written about how I overcame my problems with drugs and the law. It was from one of the convicted Fuller defendants. Though I have lost the letter, I frequently repeat in my head the part that was most important to me. I can remember it almost word for word:

Dear Mrs. Gaines,

I was reading in USA Today about your new book. I would never have guessed we had anything in common. I used to pray that something bad would happen to you because you were part of the media that put me here. But I long ago learned that praying is not for bad. So now I will pray that you will be able to touch the hearts of many young people so they won’t end up where I am. But I want you to know I am still innocent.

Sincerely,

Christopher Turner

I’d covered crime long enough to hear innumerable guilty people declare their innocence. But given the coincidence of the letter’s timing, my decade-old doubts, and something in the earnestness of Turner’s tone, I immediately called his Pennsylvania prison.

It would take a while to arrange a visit. In the meantime, he suggested, I should talk to Mary Overton, the mother of Russell “Bobo” Overton, another of the young men convicted in Fuller’s murder. She had formed a support group for the mothers of the defendants.

I met Overton in her Northeast row house. We talked for two hours, then as she was walking me to the door, she turned and grasped one of my hands.

“On the first anniversary of my son’s incarceration . . . I got down on my knees and I prayed to God to send my son home safely and to take away my taste for alcohol,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “I had a vision. A man came out of the wall of my bedroom. . . . He said, ‘You will never drink alcohol again.’ “

She asked three times about her son before the man answered, “I will keep him for 12 years, then I will send him home.”

Mrs. Overton locked her eyes on mine. “I think you have come to bring our boys home,” she said.

Of course, she was wrong. I had come to write a feature story, that’s all.

Second Thoughts A guard entered the drab interview room of the U.S. Penitentiary at Allenwood, Pa., followed by a small, squat man with a large smile. It was Christopher Turner.

He had been 19 the last time I saw him. Now he was 29. He gave me the same alibi he had given me a decade earlier: He was hanging out and playing Pac-Man at the home of one of the other defendants. I expected the denial; I did not expect the philosophy.

“I look at this [sentence] as an appointment of God,” he said. “I believe I would have fallen victim to temptations of society, if I wasn’t here.”

He sat at a wooden table and handed me some papers: report cards filled with A’s and B’s for college-level courses he had taken in prison, citations for volunteer work he had done. And then he handed me a typed letter, signed “Harry Bennett.”

Bennett was one of the defendants who had confessed to the killing and fingered others. In return, Bennett got a reduced sentence, 8 to 15 years compared to Turner’s 29 1/2 years to life.

“I want to have one good night’s sleep before I die,” the letter read. “I have ruined a lot of people’s lives with my lies.” The letter went on to say that Bennett’s testimony implicating Turner and others was false, and made an offer to testify again, this time on Turner’s behalf.

Bennett had also been 19 at the time of the murder, with a pending charge for selling heroin. On the stand, Bennett spoke in barely a whisper and stood to show with his hands the length of the pipe he said he saw Levy Rouse holding, just before he used it to assault Fuller.

I remembered it was difficult to believe Bennett’s testimony about Rouse. Both of the young men dated a teenage girl named Katrina Ward. She first dated Rouse, then began dating Bennett. Shortly after she became involved with Bennett, she discovered she was pregnant by Rouse.

Bennett was furious. When police questioned him about the Fuller murder, he would later say, he decided to get back at Ward by claiming she had been involved in the killing with Rouse. But when police arrested Rouse, Bennett and Ward moved in together. That’s when Bennett changed his account of the murder. In his new version, the girl in the alley with Rouse was no longer Ward, but another teenager named Felicia Ruffin. Ruffin would be acquitted.

When I called Bennett, who was serving his time in Wisconsin, he said, “I lied on those dudes and myself.”

He was trying to avoid a life sentence, he said. But he was innocent. He had no motive to rob a cleaning woman of a few bucks: “I always had $1,200 in my pocket. I was dealing PCP at the time.”

He said police had threatened to pin the murder on him, but that he had resisted giving them what they wanted -- a confession and testimony against other defendants -- until his interrogators told him they would find a reason to go after his parents, who had long criminal records. Finally, he said, he gave in.

The prosecutor, Jerry Goren, “painted a picture for me,” he said. “All I had to do was say yes.”

In 1997, a year after I interviewed him and 11 years after being sent to prison, Harry Bennett was released and returned to Washington. When I called him he said he and Katrina Ward were married.

Relentless Interrogation

Another defendant who confessed and implicated others in the trial was Calvin Alston. Alston was 19, a part-time house painter, when he was arrested for Fuller’s murder. He accepted the prosecution’s deal at a hearing six days before the trial began.

I called Alston in prison. As soon as I told him Bennett had recanted his testimony, he said he had perjured himself also.

He claimed he had never seen Bennett before the two met in the prosecutor’s office; he had never seen most of the defendants before he testified against them. He lied, he said, because police convinced him that if he didn’t say what they wanted, he was looking at a lot more time.

I went to see him at the federal prison at Ashland, Ky., where he was serving a 12-to-36-year sentence. Since being in prison, Alston has gotten his GED. He’s also taken paralegal courses, and a course in suicide prevention.

“I’ve changed . . . I’ve become more responsible and mature, as far as understanding others,” he said. “I know I can’t get what I want when I want it all the time.”

Like Bennett, despite his claim that he was unjustly imprisoned for the murder, he thinks he’s better off than if he had been free to remain on the streets. “I think I would have wound up in trouble or dead.”

Still, he insisted he was innocent in the Fuller case.

At the time police picked him up he had burglary and narcotics charges pending. The officers questioning him — Donald Gossage, Pat McGinnis and Ruben Sanchez, among them — offered to make those charges go away if he cooperated, he said.

Alston asked for a lawyer, “but they said at this time you won’t be able to get a lawyer.”

“It was [homicide detective] Pat McGinnis who started giving me an outline on what he thought took place. He said, ‘Calvin, if you keep denying it we’re going to bring first-degree murder charges and you’re going to be the main person everybody testifies against, so you can start by saying this happened and you can start by agreeing you were in the park.’ “

After about three hours, scared and confused, Alston said, he decided to cooperate.

“They would say, ‘Was Crissie there?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah.’ They’d say, ‘Did he participate in the kicking? Did Kelvin help?’ He was trying to lead me to the names he had given me that were in what he called the Eighth and H Crew.” Especially Levy Rouse.

After about an hour, Alston said, he was taken into a room to make a videotaped statement. He claimed he repeated what police had told him, but “Sanchez said, ‘This isn’t going to go. We’re gonna have to start this over. Calvin, you know you’re leaving out something. In all these statements you never put yourself in the equation. You had to do something.’ “

Alston put himself in the crime.

The Prosecution Rests

I met Jerry Goren at a trendy, sun-drenched Los Angeles restaurant in the summer of 1999. He moved to California after prosecuting the Fuller case, and had just finished teaching at a law and public service magnet school. Goren listened politely to the tale of the recantations, and the allegations of police misconduct. But he was emphatic in his denial of any impropriety.

“Did we do a good job? I think we did a very good job,” he said of the Fuller investigation. “Are we superb lawyers, super cops? No way. . . . We did the best we could.”

As to why residents didn’t step forward to say they had heard any noise in the alley, “I think it is possible they didn’t hear anything. It was raining. . . . I don’t know. I think, too, there was a real distrust of the authorities.”

About the recantations of Bennett and Alston, Goren said, “I had no reason at all to believe that they were not telling the truth. I can speculate about why they might now want to change their minds. . . . It may be that now they’re receiving some attention from you. It may be that now they’ve gone through their first round of parole hearings, they didn’t get parole, and they’re angry. It may be they feel the pressure that anybody who has testified in a case like this would feel in jail. It may be a dozen things. But I don’t think they are recanting because now they’re telling the truth.”

Goren said the allegation that he tried to feed testimony to reluctant witnesses was the opposite of the truth. “I was so nervous about making a mistake. Here it was Christmas time coming up, we were going to have a whole bunch of people in jail.” So after Alston’s statement, he asked to meet with him and his lawyer for one more off-the-record talk. “I want to make sure the people we’ve identified from his videotape statement are the people who were involved in this,” he said. “Alston confirmed all that.”

Goren knew that his witnesses were not the most credible people. “The bottom line is we were trying to present a case with people who were . . . uneducated and inarticulate. Several of them were clearly drug users. There was a time that summer when I said, ‘I don’t want to try this. Look at who I got as witnesses.’

“Would I ask you to believe Carrie Eleby and trust her? Not alone. Nor Calvin Alston, nor Harry Bennett. But all together, along with all the other things we had, yes.” Witnesses not only identified the same people, but independently confirmed many details of who held her down, who used the pipe, who grabbed the purse. “This is a real event. They are involved in it. They are in their own inarticulate way telling the truth. . . . This was a bunch of thoughtless, arrogant kids who went to rob this lady and she fought back and it really became a ‘Lord of the Flies.’ It got totally out of control.”

Donald Gossage, the former D.C. officer significant in the investigation because he knew the neighborhood so well, is now police chief in a rural Maryland town. When he was a cop in the District, Gossage hung out at neighborhood go-gos and dressed in youthful-looking street attire to get to mingle with the local kids. Before Fuller was killed, Gossage had warned the media and the police department that L.A.-style gangs were forming. The Fuller case became his prime exhibit.

We ate lunch at a popular family-owned restaurant in Hancock, where people stopped to greet him. He wasn’t surprised or disturbed by the recantations. It was business as usual among convicted killers, he believed. “I feel the criminal justice system did what it was designed to do,” he said of the guilty verdicts.

Gossage said police were careful the investigations, to follow procedures “within the confines of all the laws. We did the bulk of the interviews at the U.S Attorney’s office and there were usually two or three officers, detectives, and sometimes lawyers present to ensure the integrity of the interviews.”

Sometimes a witness would testify before the grand jury, then later change that testimony. “They were getting pressure from others on the street,” Gossage said. “But there was no doubt in my mind that what they initially told us was the truth.”

I found former homicide detective Ruben Sanchez in the Orlando area, where he was a limo driver. Once a bear of a man who some defendants said played “bad cop” to McGinnis’s “good cop,” Sanchez was now lean and soft-spoken -- thanks to less stress and daily walks in the sun, he said. During the investigation, Sanchez was so good at getting reluctant witnesses to talk that Goren gave him a T-shirt that said “Puerto Rican Polygraph.” Sanchez still has it.

Sanchez said they never beat anyone or solicited false testimony, but he does admit to play-acting in an attempt to scare information out of one of the defendants. While McGinnis, the good cop, talked to Clifton Yarborough, Sanchez stood just outside banging on the door and yelling like a raging bull. McGinnis told Yarborough he would try to protect him from Sanchez, but couldn’t promise. Then Sanchez raced through the door and tore off his own T-shirt as if going mad. The prank terrified Yarborough.

Sanchez laughed at the recollection. “I felt they committed this atrocity and I wanted to make sure they paid the price,” he said. “There is no humanity in these people. I don’t feel sorry for them one bit. If they had capital punishment, they deserve it.”

McGinnis was living in Southern Maryland, where he was working as a consultant on police investigations. He agreed to two extensive interviews with Post reporter Bill Miller.

McGinnis told him that far from confessing under duress, Calvin Alston “was like a fountain,” readily giving up one person after another in his account of the murder. “It’s not surprising to hear there still are denials,” he said. “I think there are probably a number of young men who are sorry that they allowed themselves to be drawn into somebody’s crime by holding an arm or a leg.”

The Fog of Time

When Carrie Eleby took the stand, she was 17 and pregnant with her third child. She testified that she and her girlfriend Linda “Smurfette” Jacobs were smoking PCP — a street drug that is legitimately used as an animal tranquilizer — when they heard screaming coming from the alley. She said she saw a gang beating someone and saw Levy Rouse using a pipe on the victim.

But she also admitted under cross-examination to giving police four different versions of what she witnessed. Her explanation was that she was trying to protect her baby’s father, defendant Kelvin Smith.

Eleven years after the trial, I tracked Eleby to a public-housing apartment in the East Capitol Dwellings. But I would never meet her. She had died of AIDS days before I knocked on her door, her uncle told me.

With Eleby dead, I could gain insight into her testimony only from papers in a small cardboard box stored in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Among a dozen or so files and loose paper was a court-ordered Social Services report on Eleby from 1983. It said she was mildly retarded and enjoyed “thrill-seeking behavior. There are indications of moderately severe feelings of anger and hostility directed at others.” Another report from 1984 cautioned, “Carrie expresses no remorse over any injuries she may have caused others.”

I found “Smurfette” Jacobs this past winter in a clean, sparsely decorated third-floor walk-up in Southeast. Now 31, she is married, the mother of eight. She said she had been drug-free for two years.

She was 15 when she appeared at the Fuller trial and sucked her thumb on the witness stand. When Goren asked if Jacobs saw what happened in the alley, she sobbed and said she saw Levy “putting a pole in the lady.”

Today, Jacobs’s recollection of her involvement in the investigation and trial is “fuzzy,” she said: “I remembered feeling pressured by police and Carrie.” The police questioned her for hours, she recalled, and threatened to charge her with the murder if she didn’t cooperate.

Now she said she and Carrie went looking for Kelvin Smith that night, but couldn’t find him. Exactly how she came to testify otherwise, she said, is a blur.

“But a murder, I wouldn’t forget,” she said.

‘I Did the Worst Thing’ I found Katrina Ward, the teenage girl in the love triangle with Rouse and Bennett, in a Northeast neighborhood a few miles from H and Eighth. A plump woman in her early thirties now, she sat on a sofa watching television and eating from a family-size bag of cheese curls, saying little.

I visited several more times before Ward agreed to talk to me. While she never admitted lying, Ward said she “exaggerated” her testimony. Why? The authorities threatened to charge her with murder, she said. And they wore her down.

The police “would pick me up at 8 in the morning and I would come out at 6:30 in the evening. The first thing . . . Jerry Goren said is, ‘There were females there in the alley and you have to make me know Katrina Ward wasn’t there.’ I was so scared, I would have said Levy [Rouse] and anybody else was there.”

Ward testified Rouse had blood on his pants the night Fuller was killed. Now she told me it had been weeks before the Fuller murder that Rouse had the blood on his pants, from being in a fight.

On the stand she also recounted a particularly damning conversation with Rouse. She said she had called him “nasty” and he responded, “Nasty? I have done worse things than that. Girl, do you know I did the worst thing to that lady in the alley.”

Now Ward said Rouse didn’t say those words: They actually came from a letter signed with Rouse’s name. She said she met Sanchez, one of the detectives, outside her house one day; he either gave her the mail or told her she had mail.

Among the envelopes was the letter signed by Rouse. It said, “Girl, do you know I did the worst thing to that lady in the alley,” Ward said. Sanchez asked for the letter and she gave it to him.

The prosecutor introduced the letter during pretrial hearings, but it was ruled inadmissible because a court-appointed handwriting analyst could not conclusively determine it was written by Rouse.

After the letter was rejected, Ward took the stand and testified that Rouse had made the ‘I did the worst thing’ comment to her in a conversation. Though she now repudiated that testimony, she said she couldn’t remember why she swore to it on the stand.

What she did remember about Rouse, she said, was, “Levy had a lot of people scared of him. . . . I saw them do things. I saw them beat guys and rob them. But never women and never for that little money.”

There were witnesses who seemed to have no personal connection to the crime, and their distance gave them added credibility. One was detective Daniel Villars, who testified that he overheard two of the defendants in a holding cell admitting to being at the crime scene and consoling themselves that there would be no fingerprints because they never touched the body. When I was reviewing Villars’s testimony, I discovered that eight years later he was involved in a police scandal: A murder case was thrown out of D.C. Superior Court when the judge concluded that Villars had lied about evidence.

The one witness jurors said influenced them most was a 13-year-old junior high student. Maurice Thomas said he happened upon the attack in the alley and recognized six of the assailants, then ran home and told his aunt, who told him to say nothing. Unlike other witnesses, the defense could not argue the police had any leverage on Thomas, as he had never been in legal trouble. Under cross-examination one defense attorney got Thomas to acknowledge that before the murder, he’d had problems with some of the defendants who regularly harassed him and called him names.

Being a witness in the case proved lucrative for Thomas and his family. Police questioned him repeatedly, paying a fee for each visit downtown, and paying his mother for bringing him. When I interviewed him in 1996, Thomas still maintained he had told the truth, although he said his memory of the incident had faded.

“I just remember seeing a group of guys in the alley,” he said. “I can’t remember what I saw.”

Deathly Silence

At times, especially in the early days of my investigation, I was obsessed with proving the defendants innocent. I feared being labeled an advocate, and that fear made me want to prove I was right. No one criticizes reporters for being advocates when they are right, I thought.

I had to admit the scenario I was asking editors to believe was not an easy one to accept. And I realized that some of my own false steps helped undermine my credibility. For two years, I insisted to all who would listen that I had found the true culprit in the crime -- until that lead disintegrated. But my motivation sprang from more than the facts. Witnesses told me they lied, but I also had a hunch, a nagging feeling that the murder didn’t occur the way police said.

The more I paid attention to this feeling, the stronger it got. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I gave up because the story was too complex or because it was unlikely I’d ever obtain the level of proof I needed. It didn’t matter if my inner conviction made me uncomfortable or misunderstood. The journalism I believed in required a passion for the truth. I embraced the word “advocate.” If I aimed for the truth that I thought existed -- as wild and unreasonable as it seemed — even if I fell short, I would find out much more about the story than I would without that passion. Or so I thought, and still think.

But what did I really have? Convicts who had changed their stories and alleged police intimidation. Witnesses who, with the benefit of not being under oath, recanted or simply didn’t remember critical testimony. Taken together, these things could make anyone queasy about the quality of evidence that sent so many young men to prison. But I had to admit, I had yet to prove anything.

I was feeling stuck when I remembered a long-ago Freedom of Information Act request to obtain police files in the Fuller case. At the time, we were told it would take at least two years to produce anything — which then seemed like forever. But here I was two years later, asking The Post’s lawyers to try to get those files. It took six more months, but finally a six-inch stack of documents arrived.

On nearly every page, whole paragraphs and names had been deleted with marker. My editors were dismayed, but I wasn’t willing to admit defeat. I took the files home.

The next morning, sitting in my living room, I came across a page on which someone had forgotten to cross out a name.

Ammie Davis was picked up for disturbing the peace three weeks after the Fuller murder. She was free to go when she asked to speak to Lt. Frank Loney. “She said she had some information on the Catherine Fuller murder,” recalled Loney, now retired in Pennsylvania. “She was very scared.”

She told Loney that on the day of the murder, she, a girlfriend and a man named James Blue were in the alley on H and Eighth shooting heroin when a woman she didn’t know walked past. Blue suddenly attacked. “I can’t believe he beat her to death for a few dollars,” she told Loney. Loney said he took the report of his conversation to either Homicide or the prosecutor’s office, he couldn’t remember which. He never spoke to her again.

Blue had a long criminal record — assault, larceny, shoplifting, possession of drugs. Some months before Fuller was killed he was charged with a drug-related murder, but the charges were dropped.

My heart raced as I read the documents. Then 10 minutes later, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I would never talk to Ammie Davis. Among the papers was a police report on another murder: The week before the Fuller trial began, Blue shot Davis in the head.

The report said the two had argued over money. Those close to Davis told me they believed she was killed for another reason.

“She told me Blue was going to kill her,” said her aunt, Dorothy Morris. “She was so scared of him.”

Why hadn’t investigators followed up? When I called Goren, he recalled police telling him Davis dated Blue and often made allegations about him when the two had been fighting — vengeful lies, they thought. But Davis’s family and Blue’s mother said Blue never dated Davis. And Loney, the cop who received Davis’s trembling tip about Blue killing a woman in the alley, said Davis seemed way too afraid of Blue to make up allegations about him. Blue, said Loney, “sounded like the kind of person who could get things done through others even if he wasn’t around.”

For Davis’s murder, Blue was sentenced to 11 to 40 years. But I would never talk to him either. He died in prison, of cirrhosis of the liver, on Christmas Eve 1993.

A Discarded Ring

Digging deeper in the censored documents, I came across witness statements from three youths who bought Fuller’s wedding ring for $5 about an hour after she was killed, just a couple of blocks from the alley. When they heard about the murder, they took the ring to Fuller’s husband, who called police.

The youths described the couple they said had sold them the ring — a woman who fit the description of Davis, and a light-skinned man with freckles. Both people were in their thirties, about the ages of Davis and Blue — though Blue had dark skin and no freckles.

I found two of the girls — now women in their thirties. They said they had expected police to show them photos to identify the couple who sold the ring. This never happened, they said. Goren and McGinnis said after investigating the statements they determined they were not important and discarded the information.

To Tell the Truth

I couldn’t shake the idea that the entire investigation had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if, despite the investigators’ denials, police had decided early on that the murderers were probably a group of rough kids who had been causing trouble in the neighborhood, then intimidated or seduced teenage witnesses into “recalling” seeing those kids committing the crime? Or what if some local loudmouth with a grudge had got the police on the wrong track, an investigative trajectory reinforced through overzealous investigation?

By now, all of the convicted defendants I’d spoken to insisted on their innocence. All had volunteered to take lie detector tests. Getting permission to administer a lie detector test to a prisoner is by no means easy. The Post found a law firm — Ross, Dixon & Masback — that agreed to work pro bono to negotiate on our behalf.

After several months, District officials agreed to let Paul K. Minor, former chief polygraph examiner for the FBI, administer the test to Rouse, the alleged gang leader. Rouse admitted that at one time he and some of the other Fuller defendants had broken into neighborhood businesses to steal tennis shoes, records and small electronic equipment. But Rouse said by the time Fuller was killed, he had become a mid-level drug dealer and had far less risky ways of earning money than robbery and murder.

Rouse told me he was excited about the prospect of taking the lie detector test, and confident he would pass.

The next morning, Rouse was taken to an interview room and hooked up to the machine. He said he’d been up all night going over every detail he could recall about the day of the murder, the investigation and his testimony. For him, his life came down to this one meeting.

I called Minor, anxious to hear the results.

“My inclination is to say he passed,” he said. “It looks that way but I need to take a further look.”

I was elated. More than a decade after the murder -- and what seemed like a lifetime since the idea of exposing a horrifying injustice had driven me to risk my reputation, maybe even my career — it was all about to pay off in dramatic vindication.

The next day Minor called back. He’d gone over his charts in greater detail, and noticed patterns that weren’t evident in his initial, first-glance assessment.

In his summary of the results, he wrote:

“I noticed a number of erratic and somewhat inconsistent responses throughout the examination that would suggest or lead me to believe that Rouse was possibly engaging in some type of counter measures.”

His conclusion: “I saw enough significant responses . . . to opine that Rouse had some involvement in the death of Catherine Fuller.”

 
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