The jury in the Catherine Fuller murder trial was skeptical of the government's key witnesses -- two young men who had pleaded guilty to Fuller's murder -- and their testimony that "so many people" were involved in the killing, two jurors said yesterday.
The guilty verdicts, the jurors said, ultimately turned on backup testimony, particularly by a 14-year-old neighborhood youth in whom the jury placed great faith.
After the marathon deliberations that ended with guilty verdicts against eight of the 10 young persons charged with fatally beating Fuller in a Northeast garage, two jurors said the key to the case was young Maurice Thomas, an innocent passerby who witnessed part of the crime and identified six of the participants from the witness stand.
"It was Maurice Thomas," one juror repeated during an interview after yesterday's verdicts. "If he didn't identify [a participant], it was difficult to find him guilty."
Neither of the two defendants who were acquitted -- Felicia Ruffin and Alphonso Harris -- was identified by Thomas as having been at the scene. The juror, who insisted on anonymity, declined to elaborate on why two other defendants whom Thomas could not identify -- Russell Overton and Steven Webb -- were among those found guilty. However, another juror said the panel generally relied on testimony corroborating that of the two who pleaded guilty, and both Overton and Webb were identified by a third witness.
The juror also said that some on the jury did not want to find all defendants guilty of first-degree murder, because "some defendants were main participants and some only looked" as the crime occurred. "But we had no choice because of aiding and abetting. Otherwise, a whole lot would have walked free, if we had any other way around it," said the haggard juror, who nervously fingered a string of beads while talking.
The juror was referring to instructions by the judge on D.C. law involving "aiding and abetting" in a crime. It states that if a defendant joins in, incites or encourages a crime, he is "as guilty as if he or she personally committed each of the acts."
Indeed, at one point near the end of their deliberations the jurors sent a note to Judge Robert M. Scott asking for clarification on that point, and the judge instructed them again.
The seven women and five men on the jury deliberated nine days on the evidence and testimony that had taken a year to gather and about five weeks to present to them in court. Yesterday, jury foreman Robert D. Lucas said they had made a pact not to discuss the case, but two jurors agreed to speak about the deliberations on the condition that they not be named.
Both said it had taken more than 40 votes to break the deadlock on the final two defendants, whose fate the jurors weighed for two extra days after reaching verdicts Monday on eight of the participants. Those two defendants were Overton and Christopher D. Turner, 20.
Overton's attorney, Allan Palmer, had stated prophetically in his closing arguments that Thomas was the "linchpin" of the prosecution's case, and hammered away at the fact that Thomas had not identified Overton -- who is 6 feet 6 inches tall -- as being at the crime scene. However, Thomas placed Turner in the alley, but said he did not see his face.
Both jurors said there was "more than one" juror holding out for acquittal in the two final cases, but both refused to elaborate on how the logjam was finally broken.
"There were several holding for not guilty on those two, but you'd be surprised what happens when the pressure is on you," said one juror.
That juror said that "sequestering broke the whole group," and if the jurors had not been sequestered, the deliberations "would have gone on longer." The jurors were sequestered last Friday after extensive news coverage of revelations at a dramatic hearing that one juror's daughter was acquainted with several defendants.
Jurors were not informed of that incident. One juror said yesterday some jurors believed that threats against them had caused the sequestration.
A second juror said it was mentally exhausting listening to the evidence and trying to "just collect facts from what you heard." Calling the evidence "all too intertwined," she said it would have been easier if jurors could have taken notes, a procedure that Scott did not allow. Several defense lawyers had complained about the complexity of evidence and sought separate trials.
This juror said that, as a remedy, the panel would rely on evidence if two jurors remembered the same testimony.
Both jurors said the panel was skeptical of the testimony by Harry Bennett and Calvin Alston, the cornerstones of the government's case. Both had pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the crime in exchange for their testimony.
"The general consensus was the two snitches did very well sentence-wise," said one of the jurors.
One member said there never came a time during the long proceedings when jurors became desensitized to the extreme brutality of the crime.
Said the juror: "It was constantly with me."