A D.C. Superior Court jury heard conflicting accounts yesterday of who killed Catherine L. Fuller -- the first from a prosecutor who presented a roll call of the names and nicknames of those he said attacked the 48-year-old woman in a Northeast alley, then differing versions from several defense attorneys, who said their youthful clients were wrongly accused of the brutal slaying.
The varying accounts came in opening statements as the murder trial of nine young men and one woman, the largest number of defendants in a single murder case in the District, began before Judge Robert M. Scott under tight security after five days of jury selection.
The 10 defendants, some of them teen-agers and all residents in Fuller's Northeast neighborhood, are accused of killing Fuller by beating her and ramming a foot-long pole into her rectum because she fought back when they tried to rob her of a coin purse.
Each is charged with first-degree murder, kidnaping and armed robbery. If convicted of the murder charge, each faces a mandatory sentence of 20 years before becoming eligible for parole.
Lawyers for only five of the defendants chose to make opening statements, but their accounts of the slaying revealed the defenses that they will present during the coming weeks.
None of the defense lawyers disputed the brutality of Fuller's death, but most attacked the government's two key witnesses, both of whom have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and criticized the lack of evidence tying their clients to Fuller's death. Three of the defense lawyers said their clients will present alibis.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry S. Goren, often pointing out the defendants one by one and calling them by nicknames such as "Fella" and "Snot Rag," told the jury how Fuller, a mother of six who weighed 99 pounds, went out that drizzly Monday afternoon, Oct. 1, 1984, to buy some medicine for a sore ankle.
As Fuller left her house in the 900 block of K Street NE, Goren said, the 10 defendants were among the people congregated in a neighborhood park, dancing to and singing a Chuck Brown song about "getting paid."
When Fuller walked by on the other side of the street -- wearing a green raincoat, her hair in pink curlers and carrying $50 in her coin purse -- the group wanted to "get paid," too, Goren said.
" 'There goes one there,' " Goren quoted a member of the group as saying. " 'She's got big money.' "
The crowd in the park quickly dispersed, Goren said, and a large group of young people, including the 10 defendants, followed Fuller.
Fuller was grabbed from behind; a chain was ripped from her neck, and as she fought back, Goren said, Charles Turner, 21, pushed Fuller into an alley and struck her. The other defendants, he said, approached Fuller from both ends of the alley, beating and kicking her. Then they carried her 150 feet to a garage behind the 800 block of Ninth Street NE where the beating continued.
"She tried to fight back, she screamed for help . . . . " Goren said. "Then at some point the beating stopped and Russell Overton dragged the victim into the garage."
Goren, his voice rising with anger, then described how Fuller was stripped of her clothes as Timothy Catlett, 20, and Clifton Yarborough, 17, fought over her coin purse. Levy Rouse, 20, Goren said, then gave "Lisa" Ruffin, 17, one of Fuller's rings and picked up "some kind of pole-like object."
"While several people held Mrs. Fuller down . . . Levy Rouse took that pole and pushed into her rectum with such force," Goren said, that it pierced her colon.
All of the five defense lawyers who made opening statements described Fuller's death as gruesome and tragic, but said the government will be unable to prove their clients participated.
"There are certain facts that are not disputed . . . . " Greta Van Susteren, attorney for Kelvin D. Smith, 20, told the jury of six men and six women. "A tragedy befell this community on Oct. 1, 1984; a member of our community was brutally murdered."
But Van Susteren, like most of the defense attorneys, told the jury that the evidence will not link Smith with Fuller's death and that the two key witnesses had been given "deals" by the government in exchange for their testimony. Harry Bennett has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and armed robbery and Calvin Alston has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Judge Scott told the jurors that a person can be convicted in the District of Columbia of first-degree murder if the person participates or aids in any way in a felony -- in this instance kidnaping or armed robbery -- that leads to a death, regardless of whether the death was an accident. Scott also said, however, that a person's presence at the scene of a murder does not automatically make him or her culpable.
Allan Palmer told the jury that his client, Russell Overton, 26, was at his grandmother's house sleeping off an afternoon of drinking. Attorney Wendell Robinson said his client, Clifton Yarborough, was at his girlfriend's house getting help with his homework. And Michele Roberts said her client, Alphonso Lamar Harris, 23, was being driven home from a friend's house.
Attorney Lillian McEwen did not disclose where her client, Levy Rouse, the object of prosecutor Goren's most heated attacks, was at the time Fuller was killed, but told the jury that the evidence would show that "Levy Rouse had nothing to do with this murder."
Following the opening statements, prosecutors began their case with D.C. police Detective Patrick McGinnis identifying several poster-sized photographs of Fuller's battered body and the garage where she was found. Some jurors glanced away.