Seven men who sought to have a judge overturn their convictions for the high-profile 1984 murder of a Northeast D.C. woman failed to prove their innocence during a series of hearings that reexamined the case earlier this year, a judge ruled Monday.
The ruling by D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Weisberg means that six of the men — Kelvin Smith, Levy Rouse, Clifton Yarborough, Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton and Charles Turner — will serve out their sentences from their 1985 convictions on charges of felony murder in the beating death of Catherine Fuller. A seventh man already has been released from prison.
The ruling formally ends a process that began in the spring. During three weeks of hearings in April, prosecutors squared off against defense attorneys, who argued that authorities, pressured by city residents and elected officials, rushed their investigation and arrested the wrong men; purposely withheld important evidence that hurt the defendants’ case; and threatened witnesses into lying. Prosecutors maintained that the seven men were responsible for the killing.
Weisberg ruled that the defense attorneys had failed to produce evidence that their clients were innocent.
“After considering all of the evidence, both at trial and at the hearings, the court concludes that petitioners have not come close to demonstrating actual innocence,” Weisberg wrote in his ruling.
Attorneys for the seven men said they plan to appeal.
“We are disappointed that the fight to clear the names of these defendants will have to continue, but we continue to believe that there is overwhelming evidence that Catherine Fuller was not murdered by these defendants,” Barry J. Pollack, one of the lead attorneys for the men, said in an interview Monday.
In 1985, a jury found eight neighborhood friends — then between 16 and 21 years old — guilty of first-degree murder in connection with Fuller’s death. The men were sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. One of them, Steven L. Webb, died in prison after a brief illness. Another, Charles Turner’s brother Christopher, was paroled in 2010 after more than 25 years behind bars.
Prosecutors outlined a horrific scenario during the 1985 trial: Fuller, 48, a cleaning woman, wife and mother of six, left her K Street NE home on a rainy afternoon to fill a prescription. The suspects were smoking marijuana and listening to go-go music at a nearby park.
A group of about 30 people confronted Fuller, prosecutors said. She was grabbed from behind and pushed into an alley, where she was beaten; a 12-inch-long metal pole was shoved into her rectum. Her liver was shattered, a lung was punctured and four of her ribs were broken, according to authorities. Her body was found in a garage in the same alley that evening.
In all, 17 people were charged in the murder. Five indictments were dismissed, two defendants pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and two others were acquitted.
During the April hearings, defense attorneys presented four witnesses who told Weisberg that detectives had forced them to lie about seeing the men in the alley when Fuller was killed. In his ruling, Weisberg said there was no evidence that the witnesses made up their accounts and called the recantations “incredible.”
Weisberg also highlighted the failed testimony of Melvin Montgomery. Defense attorneys had expected Montgomery, 45, to testify that he had been pressured into lying when he said he saw the men in the alley at the time Fuller was killed.
Instead, in a surprise turn that sent defense attorneys scrambling, Montgomery took the stand and told Weisberg that he had been truthful during his 1985 testimony.
Weisberg called Montgomery’s testimony a “bad turn of events. Whatever else can be said of Mr. Montgomery’s ‘recantation,’ it certainly cannot be said that his testimony helps petitioners to meet their burden of proving actual innocence,” the judge wrote.
In the hearings, defense attorneys also argued that prosecutors during the trial had withheld key evidence, including information about other possible suspects. For example, several witnesses told authorities they had seen another man, James McMillan, in the alley at the time of the attack. McMillan, 46, whose house was located on the alley where Fuller was killed, is serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison for a deadly attack on another woman.
Weisberg agreed that prosecutors should have disclosed the information about other possible suspects, but ruled that even if McMillan had been in the alley, it did not mean the other men were not there. McMillan, Weisberg said, “could have been a participant” in the attack.
After a 2001 Washington Post article, attorneys from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and nearly a dozen volunteers began petitioning for a new trial.
Weisberg had ordered a retrial in another case in 2009, ruling that a prosecutor deliberately withheld information in a murder trial. On Monday, he declined to do the same for the seven men convicted in the Fuller killing.
“Unquestionably, they have not proved by clear and convincing evidence that they are actually innocent, and just as surely they have not established their innocence by a preponderance of the evidence,” Weisberg wrote.