David Fuller is sitting in a McDonald’s in a small southern Missouri town, sharing publicly for the first time the most pivotal moment of his life. It was Oct. 1, 1984, in Washington, D.C., and his mother, Catherine Fuller, had just stepped off the X2 Metro bus that had brought her home from her cleaning job at a downtown office building.
Catherine walked into the front yard of the two-story, red-brick K Street rowhouse she shared with her husband and three teenage children. David, the middle child, then 16, greeted her. She asked him to take her bags of cleaning supplies into the house. Then, with about $50 stuffed in a change purse in her bra, she set off for a quick trip to the nearby convenience store. David offered to walk with his mother, but she told him to stay home and get ready for school the next morning.
Later that evening, Catherine Fuller’s body was found inside a garage tucked into an alley near the busy intersection of Eighth and H streets NE. She had been severely beaten, raped and robbed, and a metal pipe had been shoved into her rectum.
Watching his mother turn around and walk into the night remains one of the most vivid memories for David Fuller III.
“I don’t know why God had it that way, but I was the last to see her,” he says. David would spend the next three decades coming to terms with her death.
Back in Washington, David’s childhood neighbor Christopher Turner is sitting in a pizza shop on H Street, recalling that same pivotal night. He and his siblings were raised by his grandmother in a house around the corner from the Fullers, and the two young men were acquaintances — David Fuller was in a go-go band that Turner managed. Turner says that on Oct. 1, he was playing Atari at his friend Kelvin Smith’s house, battling for the high score in Donkey Kong.
Two months later, he and Smith would be arrested for participating in the brutal beating and gang rape of Catherine Fuller.
“I thought it was a joke,” Turner says of his arrest on a Sunday morning in December. He is eating a vegetarian pizza, having given up meat while in prison, worried, he says, that someone would tamper with his food. At the time of his arrest, he had graduated from Coolidge Senior High School in Northwest Washington, was working as a counselor at a nearby community center and had plans to join the Air Force. “I just couldn’t conceive it.”
He would serve nearly 26 years in prison, getting out in 2010. He has spent the years since creating a productive life for himself and continuing to maintain his innocence.
Now, a case centering on Catherine Fuller’s murder has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and could change the trajectory of both David Fuller’s and Christopher Turner’s lives. Fuller hopes a Supreme Court ruling will finally bring the case to a close. But Turner, one of the petitioners in the case, hopes the ruling will lead to a chance for redemption.
Catherine Fuller’s murder helped cement the image of the nation’s capital as a violent and dangerous place in the minds of both those who lived in Washington and outsiders across the country. The killing drew notoriety not only for its brutality, but because police linked it to the rise of crews, or violent gangs of youths. After the arrests, the D.C. police created a gang unit.
“It was a horrific crime that people remember,” said former D.C. police chief Isaac “Ike” Fulwood Jr., who was a deputy chief at the time. Fuller’s killing “gripped the city with fear,” he said. “Before that, there was never any concern about gangs in this city,” Fulwood recalled.
Sixteen boys and young men, and one teenage girl, were arrested. They ranged in age from 16 to 26 and were known as the Eighth and H Street Crew. Each of the 13 ultimately charged claimed innocence. Eight of the men were convicted and sentenced to as much as 35 years to life in prison.
Today, the seven surviving men, who have spent decades in prison, are claiming that they were wrongly convicted because prosecutors withheld material evidence that could have proved their innocence. That evidence included information from at least three eyewitnesses who told authorities they saw another man in the alley where Fuller was killed.
Although the man eyewitnesses identified, James McMillan, then 19, had a history of attacking and robbing women, defense attorneys were not given his name. (He is now serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison for the 1992 beating death of a woman in the same neighborhood.) The lead prosecutor on the case at the time, Jerry S. Goren, said he investigated the tip and dismissed the information as not relevant enough to turn over to the defense attorneys.
In 2012, a D.C. Superior Court judge rejected the convicted men’s bid for a new trial after a series of hearings on the case. In 2015, the D.C. Court of Appeals also ruled against a new trial. In both decisions, the judges said that there was not enough evidence to determine that the convicted men were not involved in Fuller’s murder, and that even if the information about McMillan had been admitted, it would have suggested only that he was part of the gang that attacked Fuller, not the sole perpetrator.
Then, last year, about a dozen D.C. lawyers for the convicted men, most of whom were working pro bono, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a “Hail Mary pass,” said Shawn Armbrust, an attorney with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project who represents one of the seven.
In December, the desperate move connected with at least four Supreme Court justices, the minimum required to accept a case. Arguments are scheduled for March 29, and a decision could come as early as June.
The court will rule on whether the information about McMillan was material. If it decides the defense should have been told about McMillan, the Fuller murder case will go back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which could decide to retry it or drop the charges.
“The standard is whether the evidence the prosecution never disclosed to the defense undermines the confidence in the verdict,” said Barry J. Pollack, one of the attorneys on the case. “We’re not arguing that the theory of prosecution at trial was off by a little bit. We’re arguing it was completely and totally wrong. This was not an attack by any large group of people. This was an attack by a single violent serial assailant.”
Inside the McDonald’s in Portageville, Mo., a farming community of fewer than 3,000 people, David Fuller often breaks into a wide, toothy grin as he sips a Sprite and talks about his mother. David, now 49, strongly resembles the Catherine Fuller portrayed in a black-and-white photo seen in the media after her death. His wide eyes, like hers, are hidden behind large glasses that rest upon full cheekbones. His short hair is pulled in a tiny ponytail, the way his mother often wore hers, he says. “I keep my hair like this because this is how I remember her.”
David is one of the few members of the Fuller family who will talk publicly about the case. “It’s been so devastating, they just would rather not discuss or be privy to anything like this,” he says.
He refuses to dwell on the what-ifs: What if he had walked his mother to the store, or what if he had insisted on going to the store for her? Maybe she would still be alive. But Catherine Fuller had told her son to get ready for school. “I did what I was told,” he says. “That was it. ”
David remembers his mother as a tiny woman, just under 5 feet tall and 99 pounds, who “had a lot of fire.” When he was about 9 years old, he stole some candy from a neighborhood store. When Catherine found out, she marched him back to the store and spanked him in front of the store owner.
“My mother was a loving, caring parent,” he says. “She was friendly. She was the type of person who would go out of her way to do anything for you. She just wasn’t a mess-and-junk individual. She didn’t deal with a lot of foolishness.”
David remembers being puzzled that he didn’t see his mother later that evening on Oct. 1, or the next morning before school. He was in his second-period class at Spingarn High School when he was summoned to the principal’s office and sent home. “My dad was sitting at the dining room table. He said, ‘Your mom didn’t make it home last night.’ Those words rang out in the dining room,” he recalls.
It was unusual for the 48-year-old Catherine Fuller to just not come home. She was the mother of six, three adult children from a previous marriage and three from her current marriage with David’s father, and a grandmother of six. “I knew something happened,” David says. “My mother wasn’t real ritualistic. But there was certain things she wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t leave and not let anyone know where she was going or what was going on.”
David didn’t return to school. He walked to a nearby store and overheard adults standing on their porches, talking.
“A woman was attacked in the alley,” one woman told her neighbor. “I hear she was raped and sodomized,” another neighbor said.
It was a word David had never heard before.
When he returned home, David’s father was on the telephone. “He was getting so emotional. I knew something was wrong and I knew it was about Mom,” David says. Then his aunt, his mother’s sister, came to the house and left again with his father. David later learned they had gone to the District’s morgue to identify his mother’s body.
The news of his mother’s death was devastating. “It was like, you know, when someone takes a drink of something and it goes down the wrong pipe and comes out your nose everywhere,” he says. “That’s how it hit me.”
The H Street corridor has changed a great deal since the Fullers lived in the house David’s father, a plumber with the General Services Administration, purchased for the family in the 1970s.
Many of the stores — Peoples Drug, a Chinese carryout, a wig shop and a record store — are gone from the once predominantly working-class African American neighborhood. Development has transformed the area just blocks from Capitol Hill into one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Washington.
But the garage where Fuller’s body was found still sits in the alley between Eighth and Ninth streets.
This is how prosecutors describe the crime, in court documents. As Fuller was walking down Eighth Street, a group of youths was gathered in a tiny park across the street — on land now covered with bulldozers and cranes — where teens often shot dice, played dominoes and danced to music. Several were singing along to “We Need Some Money” by the District’s own godfather of go-go music, Chuck Brown.
It was then, according to police, that one of the youths spotted Fuller alone in the rain. Police said several of the youths rushed across busy H Street and confronted Fuller with plans to rob her. A small group then pushed Fuller inside the alley while another group ran around to the Ninth Street alley entrance. According to court documents, several of the youths stood watch at the ends of the alley as their friends dragged Fuller into a garage and beat her, kicked her, stripped her nearly naked, held her down and assaulted her with the pipe, then left her body where it was discovered around three hours later. Prosecutors say her attackers stole Fuller’s rings along with her $50.
The first arrest was made three days after Fuller was killed. Over the next six or so months, a total of 17 people would be arrested. Of those, prosecutors charged 13 with first-degree murder. According to Justice Department documents filed with the Supreme Court in preparation for this month’s arguments, two of the teens pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against their friends before the case went to trial.
Because there was no physical evidence such as DNA, prosecutors relied heavily on witness testimony and confessions from those cooperating witnesses. During the 1985 trial in D.C. Superior Court, one witness described the youths’ time in the park and their plan to target a woman as she passed by. One witness testified he overheard one of the defendants say he had to kill Fuller because she recognized one of the teens. Prosecutors also played a videotaped confession by one of the teenage defendants who said he saw the group rob, hit and kick Fuller and attack her with the pipe. After six days of deliberations, eight of the accused were convicted. Two of the youths were acquitted. Another teen had a separate trial but then pleaded guilty.
The eight convicted during the trial were Levy Rouse, 21; Timothy Catlett, 20; Kelvin Smith, 20; Steven Webb, 20; Clifton Yarborough, 17; Russell Overton, 26; Christopher Turner, 19; and Turner’s 21-year-old brother Charles (who Christopher Turner says was at their grandmother’s house making dinner for her at the time of the killing). Seven of the eight received a sentence of 35 years to life. Christopher Turner, because of his lack of prior arrests and the fact that he had a high school diploma, received a lighter sentence of 27½ years to life.
When the jury returned a guilty verdict, Christopher Turner remembers being “crushed” and crying in court. Several of the youths broke out in tears, Turner says. “These guys weren’t tough guys.”
Of the eight men, six remain in prison today. Webb, who wept and repeatedly claimed innocence during his sentencing, died in prison in 1999 after suffering an aneurysm. Christopher Turner, now 51, was paroled in 2010 for good behavior after serving 26 years.
In 2012, four of the original witnesses tried to recant their testimony. One of them was Calvin Alston, who, at 20 , had pleaded guilty before the Fuller trial to second-degree murder and implicated several other teens, including Turner.
Prosecutors “kept threatening us with life in prison and telling us we wouldn’t go home if we didn’t cooperate,” Alston testified at the 2012 hearings.
Alston, now 51 and a maintenance worker for an Alexandria apartment complex, spent nearly 21 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
And worse, he testified in 2012, he falsely implicated others from his neighborhood: “I was young. I knew nothing about the criminal justice system. All I knew was I wanted to go home and they told me I would go home if I cooperated.”
In some ways, the Fuller case is similar to that of the Central Park Five, in which five black and Latino teenagers were convicted and spent years in prison for the 1989 brutal rape of a white female jogger. That case was built largely on the testimony of witnesses and confessions of some of the defendants charged.
The crime sent shock waves throughout New York and became a national symbol of rising violent crime in big cities. Donald Trump, then a businessman in the city, took out full-page ads in the New York newspapers calling to “bring back the death penalty” and said the “murderers” should “suffer.”
But in 2002, New York’s district attorney moved to have the convictions vacated after his office discovered new DNA evidence and obtained a confession from the actual attacker.
In the Fuller and Central Park Five cases, said attorney Armbrust, “there was a similar rush to judgment.”
After Catherine Fuller’s death, the house in the 900 block of K Street NE, where neighbors often gathered for parties, became quiet. “It was just so hard to come back together. Nothing was ever the same,” David recalls. When he was 17, David persuaded his father to sign a permission slip that allowed him to join the Army and was stationed in Texas. His father died of a colon infection three years after his mother’s death.
David had hopes of returning to Washington and becoming a police officer, like those who protected him during the trial and media frenzy. But when he came home in the early 1990s after nearly four years in the Army, the D.C. police had a hiring freeze. So David returned to Texas and worked in various manufacturing plants. In 2008, he moved to the Portageville area as the paid caregiver for one of his now-ex-wife’s ailing parents. He has seven children, including a 22-year-old daughter named after his mother.
Christopher Turner, meanwhile, spent his days reading law books and writing to attorneys, reporters, members of Congress and organizations about his case. He became what is known as a jailhouse lawyer, helping other inmates with their cases. He often speaks like a long-winded attorney, tossing off legal cases by name.
Turner first wrote to the Washington-based Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in 2000. In 2001, The Washington Post published its first article on Turner and his co-defendants, who claimed they were falsely convicted and were petitioning for a new trial. In 2002, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project agreed to investigate Turner’s petition.
“I was on a mission. I still am,” says Turner, who denies being part of the Fuller attack, or even part of a gang. He says that there was no such thing as an Eighth and H gang and that most of the teens rounded up in connection with Fuller’s death had met one another only after they were arrested.
“Many people want to know why I’m not bitter or upset. I gave that up a long time ago,” Turner says. “There was a time when I was fed up and I was angry. It was the toughest time of my life. But I had to let that go.”
Today, Turner, an easygoing man who has about a dozen pairs of different-colored athletic shoes that he coordinates with his shirts, lives with his sister and her three teenage children just walking distance from where he grew up. He has two adult sons.
Turner works three jobs, often getting up at 5 a.m. for his first job as a sales associate and security worker at a downtown retailer. He also parks cars at Nationals Park and a lot near Eastern Market. His dream is to own his own home.
“We know Chris and his co-defendants didn’t do this,” said Armbrust, one of Turner’s attorneys. “We know this was a violation of the Constitution.”
After taking over the case, Turner’s attorneys learned that three witnesses saw a man in the alley at the time Catherine Fuller was killed. He was later identified as James McMillan, who lived in a house that backed to the alley. One witness told the prosecutor, Goren, that he believed McMillan was carrying a large object under his coat at the time. Defense attorneys believe that object was the metal pipe used on Fuller.
McMillan, now 51, is serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison for the 1992 burglary and beating death of a 74-year-old woman. In a telephone interview from the U.S. penitentiary in Lee County, Va., McMillan said homicide detectives visited his house in 1984 and interviewed him. He was never arrested in the Fuller case, he said, because “just like I told them detectives then, I had nothing to do with it.”
McMillan said he is now being used as a “scapegoat to reopen this case.”
“I don’t know nothing about this case, man,” he said.
During the 2012 hearings, Goren, a Harvard-trained lawyer, acknowledged that three witnesses told him about seeing McMillan in the area at the time Fuller’s body was discovered. Goren testified that he and homicide detectives investigated the McMillan allegations and found them not to be credible, which was why he did not alert the defense attorneys.
The original defense attorneys, however, testified in 2012 that information about McMillan would have helped counter the government’s narrative of the case.
Goren, who resigned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office a year after the trial and now lives in California, did not return several calls seeking comment.
Legally, 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.
The decision in the current Supreme Court case could have far-reaching consequences regarding what evidence should be turned over to defense attorneys. Stephanos Bibas, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school’s Supreme Court Clinic, said not sharing such information has been a “recurring problem” among prosecutors. If the Supreme Court sides with Turner and his co-defendants, it could steer prosecutors to be more aggressive in turning over information to defense attorneys, Bibas said, even if they doubt the validity of the material.
“It could nudge them in that direction,” said Bibas, a former prosecutor. “But it could be a modest nudge.”
For Turner and David Fuller, the impact will be much more profound. Turner says he plans to attend the Supreme Court oral arguments. He has even put his future on hold, delaying a parole board meeting that could have ended his parole so he can remain part of the case.
Turner is hoping the court grants a new trial. Not just for him, but for his co-defendants as well.
“If they deny a new trial, I will still keep fighting for the case. I will keep looking for new evidence and new angles,” Turner says. “As for me, other than employment, my life is not affected. I would just feel bad for them. I want this for them.”
David Fuller, however, wants “finality” from the Supreme Court, “one way or another.”
“I don’t know if they did it or not. I wasn’t there,” he says of the convicted men. “Even if I knew, in my heart of hearts, whether they were guilty or not, I don’t have the authority to judge someone for what they’ve done. Just because someone makes a mistake as a child and as an adult they’ve had time to consider their actions, things change. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because nothing will bring her back. Nothing can give my children their grandmother back.”
Fuller, who is an elder at the tiny Pentecostal Let the Truth Be Told Ministries church in Portageville, lives with his 14-year-old son, David IV, in a housing project behind two manufacturing plants. He is battling health issues: He has a pacemaker, is on kidney dialysis and may need a kidney transplant after living for years with one kidney because he donated the other to his father.
But he’s found a measure of peace when it comes to his mother’s death. And he hopes his journey inspires others.
“Even with loss, you got to keep going,” he says. “You can’t allow the grief to overcome you as to where you feel you want to lash out at the world. God put something in every one of us that someone else out there needs.”
While he feels sympathy for the convicted men, he hopes they draw the same lesson. “My heart goes out to some of the gentlemen if they were falsely accused, because they suffered,” he says. “But God doesn’t mean for you to be bitter or hateful from each thing you go through. They help us grow, and in turn help someone else along the way.”
“I am proof. I am living proof. And that is what testimonies are for, to help the next person overcome.”
Keith L. Alexander and Jahi Chikwendiu are Washington Post staffers. Researchers Magda Jean-Louis, Jennifer Jenkins and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
In 1984, Catherine Fuller was brutally slain. Now her son and the men convicted of her murder await a crucial Supreme Court hearing.
“You can’t allow the grief to overcome you as to where you feel you want to lash out at the world.”
“Many people want to know why I’m not bitter or upset. I gave that up a long time ago.”