The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 2 Thursday that the men convicted of the notorious D.C. gang murder of Catherine Fuller do not deserve a new trial because prosecutors withheld some evidence in the case.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that it was not reasonable to think that the withheld evidence — that a man convicted of similar crimes had been seen in the area — would have made a difference.
“In the fact-specific context of this record, the withheld evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant to undermine the group attack theory,” Breyer said in announcing the decision from the bench.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor joined Breyer. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented, and Justice Neil M. Gorsuch took no part in the case argued before he joined the court.
At oral arguments, the justices dove deeply into the facts of the high-profile murder of 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 a 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.
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 nationwide. The killing drew notoriety not only for its brutality but because police linked it to the rise of crews, or violent gangs of youths.
Interest in the case was revived by stories in The Washington Post raising questions about the convictions, changes in the testimony of some witnesses, and the revelation that prosecutors had information about another man whom some had been seen at the crime scene.
The petitioners at the Supreme Court — Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles and Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough — claimed 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.
Breyer said the case at the Supreme Court was “legally simple but factually complex.” He wrote a detailed chronology of the murder and the trial testimony to conclude that knowing about McMillan would have made no difference.
The defendants did not attempt to rebut prosecutors’ witnesses who testified that Fuller’s death was a gang attack, rather than the work of an individual, Breyer wrote.
“Rather, each petitioner pursued what was essentially a ‘not me, maybe them’ defense, namely, that he was not part of the group that attacked Fuller,” Breyer wrote. “Each tried to establish this defense by impeaching witnesses who had placed that particular petitioner at the scene.”
Kagan wrote that the majority was wrong in the bottom line.
“With the undisclosed evidence, the whole tenor of the trial would have changed,” she wrote.
“Rather than relying on a ‘not me, maybe them’ defense, all the defendants would have relentlessly impeached the government’s (thoroughly impeachable) witnesses and offered the jurors a way to view the crime in a different light,” wrote Kagan, joined by Ginsburg.
“In my view, that could well have flipped one or more jurors,” all that would be necessary to avoid conviction, she said.
Christopher Turner, one of the defendants in the case, said that he was “disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s decision, but that he and the attorneys are not giving up on trying to prove their innocence.
“We’re going to keep fighting. This is not a discouragement by any stretch,” Turner said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We are still focusing on the case. We have found new information that we will use to prove our innocence.” He declined to elaborate.
Turner, 51, was paroled in 2010 for good behavior after serving 26 years in prison for Fuller’s murder. He has maintained that he was falsely accused.
Of the eight men who were found guilty by a jury in the case, six remain in prison. Another defendant died in prison in 1999.
The case is Turner v. United States.
Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.