A man who had signed an affidavit recanting his testimony in a high-profile 1985 murder trial on Tuesday reversed that claim, testifying that he was not recanting and that most of his original testimony was accurate.
Attorneys expected Melvin Montgomery to say he lied when he said he saw several of his friends single out Catherine Fuller and sing a song about “getting paid” on Oct. 1, 1984. Fuller, 48, was found beaten, robbed and dead in a garage in her H Street NE neighborhood. Eight men were convicted of murder in the case, and a D.C. Superior Court Judge is hearing arguments over whether to retry or exonerate the six still in prison.
Defense attorney Donald Salzman displayed a signed affidavit from Montgomery saying he was recanting his 1985 testimony. On the stand Tuesday, however, Montgomery said otherwise, surprising Salzman.
The exchange between witness and attorney was often contentious. Montgomery, who is in prison on drug distribution charges and is to be released in November, said police questioned him after Fuller was attacked and left to die as she walked to a local store.
Montgomery, 45, said he initially denied knowing anything about the attack. Then, he said, police threatened him, saying “if you don’t remember, you can go down with the ship.”
Montgomery acknowledged that he was facing drug charges in 1985 and that those charges were dropped after his testimony.
Montgomery said he eventually told detectives he saw the men singing and pointing out a woman. Prosecutors in the 1985 trial used his testimony as evidence that the men charged in Fuller’s attack pointed her out as a potential robbery victim.
But when Salzman asked him whether he had lied during the trial, he repeatedly said he had not.
“You’re trying to play me,” Montgomery said. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to play me. The police tried to play me, and now you’re trying to play me.”
During cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sweeney asked Montgomery only one question about his 1985 testimony.
“Was your testimony during the trial truthful?” Sweeney asked.
“Yes,” Montgomery responded.
Montgomery said a recent, signed affidavit recanting his previous testimony was incorrect, claiming that he told an investigator for the defense that he had not lied and signed the paper anyway.
Montgomery did say some of his 1985 testimony was incorrect: At the time, Montgomery said his friends pointed out Fuller as she walked, but on Tuesday he did not know who the woman was. Montgomery also said his friends pointed out the woman flirtatiously, not to target her for a robbery.
Eight men, who were between 16 and 21 at the time, 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.
Defense attorneys have asked Judge Frederick Weisberg to throw out their convictions or grant a new trial based on allegations that the 1985 testimony of five witnesses was coerced. The attorneys also claim prosecutors violated legal rules by withholding evidence, including evidence about other possible suspects, from their clients’ attorneys at the time.