The justices of the Supreme Court more closely resembled jurors in a murder trial Wednesday, absorbed in the details of a horrific killing that shocked Washington three decades ago.
They were considering whether federal prosecutors withheld crucial evidence in the case of Catherine Fuller, who was killed inside a garage tucked into an alley near Eighth and H streets NE on Oct. 1, 1984. She had set out for the store with $50 in a change purse tucked in her bra, and her nearly naked body was found severely beaten and sodomized with a metal pipe.
The Supreme Court usually takes cases to advance broader principles of the law. But the questions Wednesday were detailed inquires about recanted testimony and trial strategy, and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor seemed to return to their former roles trying crimes.
Sixteen boys and young men, and one teenage girl, were arrested for the murder. They ranged in age from 16 to 26 and were known as the Eighth and H Street Crew. Each of the 13 ultimately charged initially claimed innocence. Eight of the male defendants were convicted, and seven were sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
Fuller’s death helped cement the image of the nation’s capital as a violent and dangerous place in the minds of Washingtonians and others 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.
The hour of oral arguments recalled a different era in Washington, when H Street was known for its latest murder rather than its most recent restaurant opening. “The community here was basically under siege,” said the government’s lawyer in the case, Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben.
Interest in the case was revived by stories in The Washington Post and changes in the testimony of some witnesses, and the revelation that prosecutors had information about another man who some had seen at the crime scene. Those convicted said prosecutors should have told their attorneys about then-19-year-old James McMillan, who had committed robberies in the neighborhood, including an attack on D.C. Council member Nadine Winter.
The lead prosecutor on the case at the time said he investigated the tip and dismissed the information as not relevant enough to turn over to defense attorneys.
Lower courts have agreed. The question for the Supreme Court is whether there is a reasonable chance that the withheld information would have made a difference.
But questions about whether the lower courts made a mistake — the usual fare for a Supreme Court hearing — did not come until the 57th minute of the hour-long arguments.
Instead, justices asked detailed questions about trial strategy, recanted testimony and the extended jury deliberations that came after the sensational six-week trial.
Sotomayor questioned whether defense lawyers could have turned McMillan into a believable alternative for the crime when two of the attackers admitted their guilt.
Washington lawyer John S. Williams said the men had other crimes pending and made deals with the government to lessen their culpability.
“The argument would be McMillan is the most likely alternative perpetrator,” Williams said, explaining the defense strategy. “He is the reason that you should have doubt about this prosecution’s case. These witnesses are flawed. These witnesses had motivations to give testimony. There are reasons to doubt them, and McMillan is the obvious reason why they are all lying.”
McMillan, now 51, is serving a life sentence for the 1992 beating death of a woman in the same neighborhood as Fuller’s murder. He has repeatedly denied his involvement in the Fuller case.
Alito was skeptical the information about McMillan would be enough to shake the accumulated testimony, which featured confessions and the eyewitness testimony of a 14-year-old who saw the beginning of the attack.
Cases about whether prosecutors have turned over evidence that might be material and favorable to the defense, required under the court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, are fact-specific. And the justices displayed such familiarity with the case that Dreeben sounded more like a prosecutor as he described the moments before the gang spotted Fuller and attacked her.
“They’re standing in the park,” he said. “They’re singing the Chuck Brown song. Catlett is singing it. Steve Webb is banging out the beat. . . . Someone points across the street . . . says, ‘Let’s go get that one.’ ” (Timothy Catlett and Steven Webb are two of the convicted.)
Justice Elena Kagan said she was not sure of Dreeben’s argument that the information about McMillan would have made no difference.
Without an alternative theory, the accused became a “circular firing squad,” accusing one another, she said.
“It would have been a completely different trial” if there were a way to blame someone else, she said.
Dreeben noted that while prosecutors were under no obligation to turn over to the defense the information it had on McMillan, the Justice Department now operates under different rules than it did then. Under current policy, the department goes beyond the standards set by the Supreme Court, he said.
Among those in the crowded courtroom was one of the men convicted in the case, Christopher Turner. He was released on parole from prison in 2010 after serving nearly 26 years. He watched the proceedings from the second row, and he and his attorneys declined comment afterward.