IT HAS been 32 years since Catherine Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of six, was murdered in an alley in Northeast Washington. The savagery and senselessness of her death — robbed, beaten and sodomized with a metal pole — unsettled Washington. That authorities blamed a large group of young gang members who swarmed the woman for thrills and the $50 tucked in her bra only heightened the horror for a city that had not yet become inured to violence. Equally unsettling — and horrifying — would be the possibility that officials erred in their prosecution and that innocent people were wrongly sent to jail.
That, though, is the claim of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which has been leading an effort since 2010 to reopen the case. On Wednesday, the advocates scored a significant victory when the Supreme Court unexpectedly announced that it will hear arguments in the case. The court will decide whether the murder convictions of seven defendants must be set aside because prosecutors withheld information, notably about a suspect who had been spotted near the crime scene and was later convicted of killing a woman in a manner terrifyingly similar to Ms. Fuller’s case. The court could either uphold the convictions or return the matter to the trial court, at which point prosecutors would have to decide on retrials.
Of 13 people charged, 10 defendants, from 16 to 25 years old, went on trial in 1985, and eight were convicted. Six men, all now middle-aged, remain behind bars. One died in prison, and another was paroled after serving 26 years. Arguments before the high court will turn not on their claims of actual innocence but on whether their convictions were tainted by violations of case law requiring prosecutors to disclose favorable evidence to the defense. Both a D.C. Superior Court judge and the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected those arguments, and federal prosecutors in court filings cited the “overwhelming” evidence that led to the convictions being upheld.
We, of course, have no way of divining guilt or innocence, but the work of the defense lawyers has raised issues that have played a role in other cases of wrongful conviction and should give pause. Among them: There was no physical evidence; medical testimony was conflicting; some witnesses had monetary or other interests; and some defendants claimed they were bullied into false confessions. Nearly all of the living witnesses in the case have recanted their testimony.
“It is hard to convey, more than 16 years later, the impact Catherine Fuller’s murder had on Washington,” journalist Patrice Gaines wrote in a 2001 Post article that first raised questions about the convictions. “Fuller’s death and the resulting trial consumed the community.” Whether justice was done is a question that 32 years later should also consume the community.
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