Harry Bennett told District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg late last month that he didn’t know how Catherine Fuller ended up dead in a Northeast Washington alley. The only thing he was sure of, he said, was that the story he told police implicating a group of young men in Fuller’s 1984 murder was a lie.
The murder, and the high-profile investigation that followed, sent the city into a panic. Police arrested more than a dozen suspects, and prosecutors argued at trial that a group of men forced Fuller into an alley, where they robbed her and beat her to death.
But seven men convicted in Fuller’s murder want Weisberg to toss their convictions, or at least order a new trial. While their motion turns on allegations that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence pointing to other suspects at the time, actions known as Brady violations, testimony from Bennett and three other recanting witnesses played a starring role during the first two weeks of the hearing.
Attorneys familiar with the Fuller case warn that judges are usually wary of recanting witnesses. If the judge finds those witnesses credible, though, attorneys say that testimony can support claims that a conviction was unjust and that the exculpatory evidence in dispute would have made a difference at trial.
The recanting witnesses offered similar explanations in written affidavits for their decision to backtrack — that police and prosecutors pressured and, in some instances, harassed them into giving false statements.
Bennett testified that he told police he knew nothing about Fuller’s murder, but that detectives told him they would throw him in jail and arrest his family members if he didn’t admit that he and certain suspects were involved. “They started threatening me about my family members.…I was paranoid,” he told Weisberg. Throughout the hearing, he insisted that he had lied because he didn’t think he had a choice. “I’m here because I want the truth to be revealed,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sweeney pressed Bennett to explain why he decided to take back his statements so many years later. The government is arguing that none of the recanting witnesses are credible and that the jury already had an opportunity to decide whether to believe the witnesses at trial.
Putting recanting witnesses on the stand is “an uphill battle, always,” said Washington criminal defense attorney Richard Gilbert, who is not involved in the Fuller case. Case law encourages judges to be skeptical of such witnesses, he said, especially those who take back statements they made under oath.
But Gilbert said presenting recanting witnesses could be helpful in supporting a claim of Brady violations in the Fuller case, since the defendants need to prove to Weisberg that there’s a “reasonable probability” that the jury would come back with a different verdict. Defense attorneys “have to say the government’s case was built on a house of cards,” he said.
The hearing began on April 23 and is expected to last at least two more weeks.
Fuller, 48, was walking in her neighborhood on Oct. 1, 1984, when prosecutors alleged that a group of young men robbed and assaulted her, and also sodomized her with a pipelike object. She died of blunt force trauma, according to court documents. Several suspects, including Bennett, pleaded guilty, and a jury convicted eight other men and acquitted two defendants in 1985.
In 2010, seven of the men who were convicted filed a motion to vacate; the eighth defendant died in jail. During opening arguments on April 23, Williams & Connolly partner Robert Cary, an attorney for one of the defendants, said that there was an “avalanche of new evidence” that undermined the convictions.
At the heart of their case are statements from three witnesses who said they saw a man named James McMillan in the alley just before police arrived, as well as a statement from another witness who said a man named James Blue killed Fuller. Neither man was charged. Prosecutors did not turn over these statements to defense counsel, which the defendants argue is a Brady violation.
The recanted testimony, the defendants argue, is further proof that the case was tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct. Besides Bennett, three other witnesses signed affidavits recanting statements they gave to police and testimony at trial that implicated some or all of the seven men convicted in Fuller’s death.
Calvin Alston, who, like Bennett, pleaded guilty to participating in Fuller’s murder and testified for the government at trial, told Weisberg on April 25 that he was never involved and that police fed him the names of suspects. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kacie Weston asked why, if he was coached, Alston implicated one suspect even after police said that man had an alibi; Alston replied that he wasn’t “thinking straight” at the time.
Not all of the testimony seemed to go as defense counsel may have planned. The third recanting witness, Melvin Montgomery, testified on April 24 that his affidavit wasn’t true, and that he hadn’t lied at trial when he identified certain defendants as being near the scene of the crime.
The final recanting witness, Linda Jacobs, repeatedly testified on May 1 that she didn’t remember much of what had happened, except that she lied at trial and that police and prosecutors had told her what to say. Weisberg asked Jacobs to specify what she was told, and Jacobs said that she couldn’t remember, except that she knew she lied. Weisberg said that he had read her trial testimony and that if she was lying, it was “pretty convincing.”
Former D.C. homicide prosecutor Thomas DiBiase said that, in attacking recanting witnesses, prosecutors are more successful when they can draw out the reasons a recanting witness might be stepping forward, as opposed to trying to get the witness to flat-out admit that they’re lying. In some cases, he said, witnesses may recant untruthfully because they fear being labeled a snitch, or because they feel guilty about sending another person to jail. “You think, it’s been so long, it’s time for this guy or that guy to get out of jail,” said DiBiase, who is now deputy general counsel for the U.S. Capitol Police.
DiBiase said that, even if the defendants can prove prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence and cast the original verdicts into question, they’re required to go an extra step to prove that there’s a good chance the outcome at trial would have been different. “Judges are loath to undo the results of trials because the standard of guilt is so high at a trial,” he said, adding that “it’s not impossible, but it’s a high burden.”
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.