Two witnesses in 1985 murder trial say police, prosecutors coerced false testimony
Two District men who were star witnesses in the high-profile 1985 trial against a gang in the beating death of a 48-year-old woman told a judge Wednesday that they were coerced by police and prosecutors into pleading guilty and testifying against their friends.
Eight men were convicted of murder in the Oct. 1, 1984, death of Catherine Fuller in her H Street NE neighborhood. This week, a D.C. Superior Court judge is hearing arguments about whether to retry or exonerate the six still in prison.
On Wednesday, Calvin L. Alston said police questioned him several times even after he said he knew nothing about Fuller’s death. They said he would spend the rest of his life in prison if he did not cooperate, he said.
Harry J. Bennett, meanwhile, said the version of the attack that he testified to in 1985 was fed to him by detectives.
Fuller’s body was found in a garage in an alley just off the busy H Street corridor. She had been beaten and robbed, and a 12-inch metal pole had been shoved into her rectum, according to authorities.
Alston, 46, said a woman who had been arrested on burglary charges identified him as having information about the killing. He told detectives that he knew nothing about Fuller’s death but was threatened with a lengthy jail sentence if he did not cooperate, he told Judge Frederick Weisberg.
“I was confused,” Alston said. “I was a scared child.”
Over three hours, Alston said, detectives asked him questions, provided him with names of his friends they thought were part of the attack and told him what they knew about it. They went over his account a dozen times, Alston testified, and then videotaped a 31-minute statement in which he provided a detailed description of the attack that included the names and action of several of his friends.
The video, which showed Alston drinking a bottle of orange soda as he discussed the attack, was played in court Wednesday.
“I added things into it which I heard them say,” Alston said. On Wednesday, prosecutors challenged his version of events, asking why he thought detectives wanted him to falsify his account; Alston said he was never ordered to repeat what they told him but felt that doing so would satisfy police.
After recording the interview, Alston said, he was charged with first-degree murder.
While in jail, Alston said, three inmates sexually assaulted him. He was moved to a jail in Richmond.
“I just wanted to go home,” Alston said. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against his friends; he was sentenced to 12 to 36 years in prison and was released in 2005.
He says he now regrets lying. “I hurt their families and these men,” he said. “I was wrong, and I am trying to correct a wrong.”
Eight men, then ages 16 to 21, were convicted of first-degree murder in 1985 and sentenced to between 35 years and life in prison: Kelvin Smith, Steven L. Webb, Levy Rouse, Clifton Yarborough, Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton and brothers Charles and Christopher Turner.
Christopher Turner was released in 2010. Webb died in prison. The rest remain incarcerated.
Attorneys for the six men still behind bars say prosecutors and detectives coerced confessions and withheld information during the trial, a violation of legal rules. Authorities have said the defense attorneys’ claims “would not undermine confidence” in the original verdicts.
Bennett, 46, testified Wednesday that detectives “threatened to lock up my mother and my father, so I just started saying things I heard on the news or had heard on the street” when he was questioned.
Bennett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and gave a detailed account of the attack on the stand bolstered by information he now says was relayed to him by detectives. He has since been released from prison and says he was not involved in the attack.
“I want the truth to be revealed,” he said. “I live with this every day.”
The hearings began Monday. Weisberg could rule that the convictions should stand, vacate them and release the men, or order a new trial.
Another witness, Melvin Montgomery, had been expected to testify Tuesday that he, too, lied when he testified against the men in 1985. Instead, he surprised defense attorneys by saying he was truthful, although he admitted signing an affidavit that said otherwise.