An attorney whose client was acquitted in a high-profile 1985 murder trial in the District testified Tuesday that prosecutors never shared several pieces of evidence in a case that sent eight men to prison for first-degree murder.
Two people were acquitted in the death of Catherine Fuller, and Michele Roberts, then with the District’s Public Defender Service, was co-counsel for one of them. On Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, Roberts said that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense — including the names of three other possible suspects, two of whom were seen in the alley where Fuller’s body was found around the time of her murder.
Fuller, 48, was discovered in a garage in an alley off the busy H Street NE corridor in 1984. She had been beaten, robbed and sodomized with a 12-inch metal pole.
Roberts also said Tuesday that she was not aware that detectives and prosecutors had written notes saying that several of the witnesses who testified against the 10 defendants in the case had changed their stories, admitted lying about their whereabouts on the night of Fuller’s killing and had smoked PCP around the time of the attack.
Roberts testified as defense attorneys are seeking to clear the men convicted or get them new trials. The information allegedly withheld by prosecutors, they say, would have been important during the 1985 trial.
“This information would have been helpful to the defense,” testified Roberts, who said she would have used it to attack the credibility of the witnesses who testified against the men and establish the possibility that authorities had arrested the wrong people.
Local defense lawyers and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project have petitioned D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg to reexamine the case, arguing that prosectors violated ethical rules to secure the convictions. Weisberg could let the convictions stand, vacate them or grant the men new trials.
Prosecutors have said that much of the information Roberts discussed was viewed as not credible at the time. They insist that no ethical violations took place.
Roberts’s client, Alphonzo Harris, was acquitted in 1985 after she showed that he had an alibi at the time of the murder. But the defense had “nothing to counter the government’s narrative of this case,” Roberts said.
At the time, 10 individuals between the ages of 16 to 21 were charged with Fuller’s murder. Two — Harris and Felicia Ruffin, the only female charged — were acquitted.
The remaining eight were convicted of first-degree murder 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.
Roberts was one of several defense attorneys from the 1985 trial expected to testify during the hearings before Weisberg. One not scheduled to testify is Fox News talk show host Greta Van Susteren, who represented Kelvin Smith.
Several men and women have said that detectives coerced them into testifying against the defendants in 1985. Defense attorneys have also called medical and forensic experts who said that because Fuller’s wounds were concentrated on one side of her body, it was more logical that one person, not a group, was responsible for the attack.
The lead prosecutor and lead detectives who worked the original case are also scheduled to testify.