In 1984 D.C. murder case, court to examine allegations of prosecutor misconduct
Authorities linked the attack to members of a street gang called the Eighth and H Crew. Seventeen of them were arrested, two pleaded guilty in the death of Catherine Fuller, 48, and eight were convicted of first-degree murder in 1985.
On Monday in D.C. Superior Court, a judge will begin hearings to determine whether those convicted should get a new trial — or even be exonerated.
Evidence that wasn’t presented to defense attorneys before the trial “undoubtedly undermines confidence” in its outcome, a lawyer wrote in a recent court filing.
The men convicted, now in their mid-40s, were Kelvin Smith, Steven L. Webb, Levy Rouse, Clifton Yarborough, Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton and brothers Charles and Christopher Turner.
Webb, who wept and repeatedly claimed innocence during his sentencing in 1986, died in prison. Christopher Turner, who also maintained his innocence, was paroled in 2010 for good behavior after more than 25 years behind bars, according to a lawyer familiar with the case.
Prosecutors outlined a horrific scenario during the trial: Fuller, a cleaning woman, left her K Street NE home on a rainy afternoon to fill a prescription. The suspects, then 17 to 21 years old, were smoking marijuana and listening to go-go music at a nearby park.
A group of about 30 confronted Fuller, prosecutors say. She was grabbed from behind and pushed into an alley, where she was beaten and a 2-inch-thick 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.
After the trial, defense attorneys examined hundreds of pages of previously unavailable grand jury testimony and discovered that several witnesses identified three other people who were either seen in the alley at the time of the attack or had allegedly confessed to the attack to friends.
Several witnesses told authorities that they saw James McMillan, who house-sat on the alley where Fuller was killed. McMillan, now 46, is serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison for a deadly attack on a woman.
That information, defense attorneys argue, was known to detectives and prosecutors but not shared before the trial. Attorneys for Christopher Turner and the six men still in prison, with the assistance of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and nearly a dozen volunteer criminal defense attorneys, began working for a new trial in 2010.
In a February court filing, Innocence Project attorney Barry J. Pollack wrote that the government’s failure to disclose evidence that Fuller’s murder might have been committed by one or two individuals who were not charged, rather than a large group, “undoubtedly undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.”
Prosecutors must provide their evidence to the defense at the earliest possible time, even if that evidence weakens their case. Failure to do so can be considered misconduct and a violation of a 1963 rule based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland — and can lead to case dismissals and retrials.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District declined to comment. In a March filing, prosecutors defended the handling of the original case and said the Brady claims “would not undermine confidence” in the original verdict.
Lawyers familiar with the case also say four witnesses — including the two men who testified against their co-defendants in exchange for lighter sentences — have recanted their testimony and told defense attorneys that their original accounts were coerced by police.
In an affidavit, Jerry S. Goren, the lead prosecutor on the case at the time, denied withholding credible evidence from the defense or feeding other witnesses evidence to be repeated during a trial.
Goren, who according to the affidavit now lives in California and has left the legal field, is listed alongside dozens of former D.C. police officers and detectives as a potential witness in the hearings.
Judge Frederick H. Weisberg will oversee the proceedings, which are expected to take about three weeks.
Weisberg, a former defense attorney, has sat on the bench for more than 35 years. He is familiar with cases regarding alleged prosecutorial misconduct: In 2009, he ordered a new trial in a first-degree murder case after reviewing the case and finding that the prosecutor deliberately withheld information. The defendant in that case pleaded guilty to second-degree murder before his retrial.
The neighborhood where Fuller was killed is vastly changed since 1984. Riddled with crime and drugs three decades ago, it now sports sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, and considerable new construction and economic development. Brenda Bynum was living in an apartment above an H Street record shop when Fuller was killed and says she frequently saw the woman take shortcuts through the alley.
“It was horrible, just horrible,” Bynum said. She and her husband later purchased a brick house that sits on the alley.
The garage where Fuller’s body was found still stands in the T-shaped alley between Eighth and Ninth streets NE, just a block off bustling H Street. It is boarded up, and a sign on the door reads: “You’ve Been Warned. Do Not Enter.”
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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