What Happens When Justice Fails?

Defense attorneys recently argued that the men convicted of a 1985 murder should be exonerated or given a new trial. Patrice Gaines reported on the crime, and had doubts about the police version. Years later, she re-investigated and talks about the case with host Michel Martin. Advisory: This segment may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, chess champion Hikaru Nakamura scored his third U.S. Chess title this weekend. In a few minutes, we'll hear the songs that he listens to to get pumped up and to relax for a big match.

But first, we want to talk about justice. Actually, we want to talk about what happens when the justice system fails. A new archive compiled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's School of Law found that more than 2,000 people convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the last 23 years.

Now, recently, we told you about the notorious case of the Central Park Five. That's the story about five young men who served long sentences for raping and nearly killing a young woman in New York. Years later, evidence emerged that exonerated all of them.

Now, there's another story in Washington, D.C. with echoes of that case, and this is probably a good place to mention that the details are very disturbing and might not be appropriate for all listeners.

Catherine Fuller was beaten and raped in a particularly vicious way in a Washington, D.C. alley back in 1984. Police blamed a local street gang for Fuller's death. As a result, 17 people were arrested. Two pleaded guilty and six others were eventually convicted of first-degree murder in 1985.

Now, that case is getting another look. Defense attorneys gave closing arguments last week in a hearing to determine whether the men convicted of Fuller's murder will get a new trial or even be exonerated.

Some observers had concerns about the Fuller case from the start. In 1985, Patrice Gaines was a young reporter covering the story for The Washington Post and after visiting the neighborhood where the murder took place and interviewing residents, her information conflicted with the official version of events. But, she says now, she did not have the skill or experience to know what to do with those doubts.

Years later, in the 1990s, Gaines began reexamining the case herself and later began speaking out in behalf of the six men still behind bars. Patrice Gaines is here with us now to talk about the Catherine Fuller case and her experience covering it. Gaines is a veteran journalist. She's also author of "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey From Prison to Power."

Patrice Gaines, welcome to the program. Thanks for speaking with us.

PATRICE GAINES: Oh, hello. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Patrice, I do want to mention here that you and I are former colleagues. I do think that's worth, you know, pointing out. And I do remember - and you never struck me as a particularly shy person. You seem like a very tough reporter and so I think, for a lot of people, they might wonder - people who know you, people who know your work and also know the reputation of The Post for aggressive reporting. Can you talk a little bit about when you started to have doubts about the official version and why you weren't able to act upon them?

GAINES: Sure. One of the things is that I wrote features. I didn't do tough investigative pieces, so I really had not honed those skills, but just as a human being and a person who had once lived or at least had been in that community a lot - so, going there, I wasn't frightened and I went out to investigate or to talk to people about this story that the police had told us, that there was a gang that had killed this woman, this mother.

And the first thing I found that was curious was that no one knew that there was a gang in the neighborhood. Police have described this group of young people as if they had terrorized the neighborhood and, in fact, told me that - they said people were too afraid to speak. But I didn't find that and where they said the murder occurred was in an alley during the day. It was a very busy time, so there were a lot of things to me that didn't make sense.

If there were up to 30 people in this alley, as police said, why is it that no regular person, you know, no grandmother, no person coming home from work or running an errand saw this? The only people who saw it were people that the police said saw it who were all young teenagers.

MARTIN: What was it about that made this case so shocking? Was it because of the particular brutality with which the woman was killed? Was it the time of day, the fact that she was a mother? Can you talk a little bit about that?

GAINES: Sure. Well, at that time, this was in 1984. It was before crack cocaine really, you know, took over the city and created a lot of violence and open air drug markets, so it was also at a time, though, where, in California, we were hearing about gangs, you know. So it was the national news, gangs, gangs, gangs.

And there were police in Washington who tried to convince some of us reporters that, indeed, there were gangs in Washington, but no one had seen evidence of it. So, when this occurred, the fact that they said it was a gang, that there were so many young people that pummeled and, you know, beat this woman, stomped her and the most horrifying detail was that they said that she was sodomized and that she was sodomized with a pole. Now, that one horrible detail just captivated everyone's attention. And I know I had people, even recently, say to me that after that they didn't follow the case at all because they didn't care about anybody who would do this.

But I have to tell you what I have found in my research is that quite often these cases that are overturned, there is always one horrible detail that makes the suspects seem like animals.

MARTIN: And so you think that there's perhaps such a desire to see someone arrested or held to account for this behavior, that people then what? Kind of are willing to overlook inconsistencies like the ones that you found?

GAINES: Absolutely. I think that they all they think is punish, punish them, just punish them.

MARTIN: Or get somebody or make somebody responsible for this. So...

GAINES: Right, make someone...

MARTIN: So you went out there and it just your sense of the neighborhood, that sense of the community, the sense of what you are hearing from people who lived there just didn't square with the official version. Then what happened?

GAINES: Well, when I first raised it with an editor, the editor really just gave me this blank look like I was a wall. But I hadn't been a reporter long and I had covered features, so all the other media - because people were outraged and the media was covering this, you know, and they were pretty much just quoting whatever police said. And I have to say, this was a time when that's what media did. And so it was me saying, you know, me - this inexperienced reporter - saying that I didn't believe what the police were saying or what all the other media believed to be the truth.

MARTIN: We're talking about the case of Catherine Fuller. She's a 48-year-old mother of five who was brutally murdered in 1984. My guest is Patrice Gaines. She is a veteran journalist who covered the case as a young reporter back in 1985. She always had doubts about it, she tells us, and now attorneys for the people who were convicted in the case have asked for a new trial.

So the men are convicted.

GAINES: Yes.

MARTIN: The young people are convicted. Fast forward 10 years.

GAINES: Sure.

MARTIN: You get a letter from one of the men serving time in this case. And then what happened?

GAINES: And what happened was I wrote a book and one of these young men read about my book in the newspaper and wrote me a letter, basically saying that he was still innocent. And when I read that, all of the old doubts that I had came back. And this time I was a different person than I had been. I was experienced, more confident, and so I decided I'd really I was going to write a long feature that looked at everything. But what I found out when I started talking to people again, was they told me the same stories that they told me, you know, 10 years prior, that filled me with doubt. You know, the story of a 16-year-old special ed. student who had a 69 IQ who ended up signing a confession and based on his confession police began to make arrests.

This young man told me that he had been roughed up by the police and also that he was terrified. He was held for hours without a lawyer or any adult. It just went on and on and the ones that didn't tell the same stories really are the ones that admitted to me that they lied. They were young people who decided, at that time, that they were going to be witnesses for the police. But now they told me as older adults that they felt that the police had threatened them, and then if they didn't become a witness it meant that they were a part of the gang. And so...

MARTIN: If...

GAINES: Yes.

MARTIN: If the evidence suggests that the people who are convicted of the crime didn't do it, who did? Was there other evidence available that pointed to a more logical suspect or suspects?

GAINES: There was. And that's what came out in the more recent hearing. These young men originally did not for the most part did not have lawyers with resources. They had appointed - court-appointed lawyers. But the other thing, the more amazing to me, is that when I was working on this one of the things I found was evidence that the defense attorneys never received from the prosecutor's office. One of those was the fact that there were witnesses who saw someone else in the alley that night. They saw a man named James McMillan who later on went on to kill a young woman who was in Washington on an internship working for a Congress member. Killed her, sodomized her in an alley within blocks of this location. So the fact that this witness saw - well, four witnesses actually - saw him, that information never reached the defense attorneys. So there was information like that - information that the Ms. Fuller's wedding ring was purchased on H Street by two young people who bought it for $5, which immediately to me said that's somebody with a drug problem. People just don't sell diamond rings for $5. And that alley was known to be used by people who used drugs and also drank alcohol. So there were a lot of new pieces but the important thing is that these defense attorneys and these young men, their lawyers never received that information, therefore the jury never heard that information.

MARTIN: Well, Patrice, I think one thing that stands out in this case that's different from the Central Park case, is that often when we talk about these cases race is a factor.

GAINES: Right.

MARTIN: In this case, none of that was true. The victim, an African-American. The alleged perpetrators, it's a majority black experience. The chief of police at that time, an African-American. You see what I'm trying...

GAINES: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think many reasonable people would say well, why wouldn't they want to know who really was guilty?

GAINES: In this case I think that no one cared who got arrested for this, someone had to be arrested. But I think that it also was very easy to convince - whether it's a rest of the police department - to convince the media that young black people acted like animals. They could not convince the community in which this happened because they knew that that wasn't true but this community didn't feel powerful enough that it could speak out and say this. So I think, you know, there are times when it's not, it doesn't seem as clear cut but I think it is the same type of racism that is operating there.

MARTIN: As we are speaking now, what's the status of the case? Is it that a judge will take it under advisement and decide whether the men get a new trial?

GAINES: Mm-hmm. The judge can decide. He can decide to exonerate them, have a new trial or send them back to prison.

MARTIN: What do you think we should learn from all this?

GAINES: Police officers are human beings. Prosecutors are human beings. Mistakes are made but we have to be vigilant. If we want a justice system that works for all of us, then it has to work for all of us. We can't look at people and say they have no value, just lock them up. We have to watch the process. It has to work correctly for them.

You know, we just don't look at the kind of representation that poor people receive in a courtroom and we need to do that.

MARTIN: What about you, if you don't mind my asking? What effect do you think this has had on you over the years? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel that you perhaps, bear some responsibility here - for the fact that there was not a more skeptical eye placed on the narrative around this case? I mean, what about you?

GAINES: Well, I could talk an hour about that. It's been life-changing for me. Because like many people in the public, I realize there were things I was naive about. And I've seen the ugliness that one human being can have towards others - I've seen that. And to really be quite sure that, you know, a young 16-year-old can be roughed up and sign a confession when he can't read it. I mean that just hits me, you know, deeply. But also I watched the media grow. We are in the business of questioning and therefore, we have to question and find the truth, regardless. And so I was deeply impacted by the fact that we didn't do that. That we didn't value the words of people on the same level, but yet, I don't have any guilt today because I had to work through that. What I do feel is that for once in my life I did the very best I could. I absolutely know I did that very best I could.

MARTIN: Patrice Gaines is a veteran journalist. She's the author of the memoir "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey From Prison to Power." And she was kind enough to join us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Patrice Gaines, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GAINES: Thank you.

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