The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After 32 years in prison for a double murder he says he didn’t commit, he now seeks a pardon

With prosecutor disbarred for withholding exculpatory evidence, John Huffington turns to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to clear his name.

John Huffington, 59, served 32 years in prison for a double homicide in Harford County, Md., which he says he did not commit. He is now seeking a pardon from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

When John Huffington walked out of a Maryland prison in 2013, having served 32 years for a double murder in Harford County, he went straight to work. Even with a murder retrial hanging over his head, he was immediately hired as a logistics manager for Second Chance, which salvages buildings and provides job training in Baltimore, then oversaw a staff of 25 as director of workforce development for the Living Classrooms Foundation.

As Huffington worked, served on numerous task forces and boards and spoke around the country about the need to reintegrate prisoners into society — and about what he felt was his wrongful conviction — examples of his prosecutor withholding evidence from his lawyers continued to arise. Wanting his case resolved, Huffington reluctantly entered a plea in 2017 and was sentenced to his 32 years of time served.

Then, last month, longtime Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, who had handled Huffington’s case for 36 years before retiring, was disbarred by the Maryland Court of Appeals — a move that has only occurred five times nationwide in such cases, according to the Innocence Project. In a 97-page ruling, the court found that Cassilly had committed “various instances of intentionally dishonest misconduct” and that he “intentionally failed to disclose exculpatory evidence as a prosecutor for over a decade” in Huffington’s case.

FBI errors prompt retrial in 1981 Md. killings

Now, Huffington is asking Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for a pardon. A pardon will not erase his conviction, nor does it enable him to collect from a state fund set up to compensate those who were wrongly convicted. Prisoners who served with him and were exonerated have received millions.

“I just want my name back,” Huffington, 59, said in an interview. “This should not have happened. It’s my name.”

He said when he went to rent an apartment, he was required to provide a portfolio prepared by his lawyers at Ropes & Gray, who have represented him for more than 30 years, to land a place to live. He has no pension or other means to support himself when he retires.

Huffington feels the state of Maryland owes plenty of apologies for the handling of the May 1981 slayings of Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson in Abingdon. Apologies to him, for the 32 years spent in prison, but also to the victims’ families, “because they’ve been lied to.” The citizens of Maryland also deserve an apology, he said, because the prosecutor “abused his power. He lied to them too.”

Cassilly and the victims’ families strongly disagree.

Cassilly learned of his disbarment through a phone call from a Baltimore Sun reporter. “Do I care? I don’t give a d---,” the retired prosecutor told the Sun, saying that he had done nothing wrong and his case “fell into the whole anti-criminal justice movement, where the cops are the bad guys and the prosecutors are the bad guys.”

Cassilly did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post, but he wrote in the Aegis, a Harford County newspaper, that after he was “unduly disbarred,” he was still confident that Huffington was a killer. He said when he received an FBI report in 1999 that strongly criticized the work of an FBI hair evidence examiner in Huffington’s trial, he found it “did not say that the examiner lied, testified falsely or made a mistake,” and so he never provided it to Huffington’s lawyers.

The report reviewed a hair analysis done by an FBI agent and found that it was unclear whether the agent had “performed the appropriate tests in a scientifically acceptable manner,” or that the agent had personally done the tests at all. The agent testified that hairs found at the crime scene matched Huffington’s, in a type of analysis later found scientifically unreliable.

Convicted defendants left uninformed of forensic flaws found by Justice Dept.

The National Whistleblower Center uncovered the report through a Freedom of Information Act request and later supplied it to The Washington Post. The Post shared the report with Huffington’s lawyers in 2011, which was the first time they had seen it. The disclosure led to DNA tests performed in 2013 that determined the crime scene hairs weren’t his. His lawyers filed for a writ of actual innocence, which was then granted by a Maryland court.

When Huffington was released on bail, pending a third murder trial, one of the victims’ families expressed disgust.

“We are deeply saddened and once again outraged,” William Watson, Becker’s older brother, told the Aegis, “that the system of justice, designed to bring justice to victims, has failed once again. This represents judicial malfeasance of the greatest magnitude.”

By 2013, Huffington had already amassed a lengthy resume. He had launched the Alternatives to Violence Program in prison. He had created a way for inmates to document their educational and program achievements for presentation to the parole board. And he had earned his bachelor’s degree in management science from Coppin State University.

But he had also been in prison when his mother died and was denied the right to attend her funeral in 2008.

“That’s the one thing that’s so unforgivable,” Huffington said. “There’s no way to process it. I had to talk to a tombstone this morning, that’s what I had to do.”

As Huffington’s lawyers prepared for a third trial, they found that his phone records from 1981, which would have supported his alibi that he was at home when the slayings occurred, according to Huffington, had been subpoenaed. But they hadn’t been provided to the defense in 1981, and in 2013 the prosecutors no longer had them, he said.

The defense learned that a key piece of evidence, a vodka bottle with Huffington’s fingerprint on it — supposedly used to kill Becker — also had numerous other untested fingerprints on it, according to his lawyers. When the defense asked for DNA testing on the hairs that supposedly placed Huffington at the scene, Cassilly filed a motion to have the physical evidence destroyed, which was rejected. Huffington said DNA testing on clothing he allegedly wore did not show any trace of blood and that prosecutors delayed DNA testing on the hair, which also did not match Huffington. The defense also found that Cassilly had testified for parole on behalf of the co-defendant while writing a letter to Huffington’s parole opposing his release, Huffington said.

As the disclosures came in, Huffington kept working on prisoner reentry programs and other community building initiatives around Baltimore. He became a founding board member of PIVOT, a program to reintegrate female prisoners, as well as worked with Ray Lewis’s Power52 Foundation to provide solar employment training for at-risk adults and served on the governor’s Collateral Consequences Workgroup. He testified in front of a Senate committee seeking to reinstitute Pell Grants for disadvantaged students.

“Education and job training,” Huffington said, “are the only two things that have been proven to reduce recidivism. If you’re not going to invest in the time while they’re there [in prison], if you just want to warehouse them, you’re going to get what you get when they come home. So I’m passionate about that.”

In 2017, Cassilly offered Huffington a deal: An Alford plea, in which a defendant doesn’t admit guilt but does admit prosecutors have enough evidence to convict. A judge found him guilty and sentenced him to time served as part of a plea agreement.

“That was easily the hardest decision of my life,” Huffington said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

But he felt he had worked into a position where he was advocating effectively for those who needed it, having an impact on a variety of lives, and didn’t want to risk it with another trial.

I have a voice in some of the hallowed halls,” Huffington said. “I have access and I’m supposed to be here, to utilize my voice.”

“Those were the most difficult conversations I’ve had with a client in my career,” attorney Chong S. Park said of Huffington.

But the judge handling his third trial had clerked for the judge who originally sentenced Huffington to death in 1984 — a sentence later commuted to life. She told Huffington “you are guilty of two gruesome and horrendous murders,” and Huffington then felt his plea was more of a sure thing, saying, “It’s important to me that I reclaim my life.”

Park said the Harford County state’s attorney could move to vacate the conviction, as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has done in more than a dozen wrongful conviction cases, which then enables the defendant to receive money from the state. Gavin Patashnick, a spokesman for Harford County State’s Attorney Albert J. Peisinger, Jr., said his office could not comment on the case.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor had not received the pardon request.

“We are always working through pardon petitions,” Ricci said, “and we will consider this request when we receive it.”