A judge in Washington, D.C., has turned back an effort by seven men charged with a notorious 1984 murder to overturn their convictions, ruling the evidence against them remains "overwhelming" and the testimony of witnesses who changed their story are "not worthy of belief."
"In recent years, particularly since the advent of forensic use of DNA, tragic cases of wrongful convictions of innocent persons have been uncovered," wrote Judge Frederick H. Weisberg. "This case is not one of them."
Earlier this year, a lab reported that efforts to test swabs taken from the murder victim, Catherine Fuller, as well as hair and clothing recovered in an alley near H Street in Northeast Washington did not contain enough biological material. The Fuller killing seemed to usher in a wave of violence that peaked as crack cocaine ravaged Washington in the late 1980s.
Decades later, the men tried to reopen the case, arguing they had been railroaded by police and prosecutors desperate to solve a murder that set the entire city on edge. Under the Innocence Protection Act, defendants need to prove they are "actually innocent" of the crime against them through clear and convincing evidence. The judge wrote that courts are skeptical of people who come forward long after a crime has been committed to recant their stories, and he gave virtually no weight to neighborhood witnesses and co defendants who told him they had lied decades ago.
From Morning Edition; July 5, 2011:
"In the fall of 1984, in a rain-soaked alley in Washington, D.C., a street vendor found a tiny woman lying dead on the floor of a garage.
"She was Catherine Fuller, a mother of six, who left home to run a quick errand and never came back. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and killed all within sight of a busy public street."
Judge Weisberg concluded that prosecutors should have turned over more evidence that could have helped the men mount a defense years ago, but he said some of those lapses were due to the complexity of the year-long investigation and nearly 400 witness statements the police and prosecutors had collected. In any event, the judge wrote, none of those materials "would have made any difference in the outcome of the trial."
Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Christopher Turner, one of the men seeking to overturn the convictions, vowed to appeal.
"The jury convicted a large group of men of murdering Catherine Fuller, but the jury did not know that there was substantial medical and forensic evidence that the crime was committed by a single assailant, and compelling evidence that the perpetrator was someone who was never charged," Pollack said. "Having heard that evidence, the court today focused on the flawed testimony presented at the original trial, rather than on the scientific evidence undermining that testimony. ... Justice demands that a jury hear all of the evidence and make its own decision."
Update at 4:35 p.m. ET. 'Guilt Is Overwhelming':
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia issued this statement:
"Nearly thirty years after the brutal murder of Catherine Fuller shocked our community, seven men found guilty of her killing sought to overturn their convictions on a number of grounds, including unfounded allegations of misconduct by police and prosecutors. Today the court rejected those claims and reaffirmed that the evidence of these murderers' guilt is overwhelming. We are satisfied that justice has been done and hope that today's ruling settles this matter and brings some measure of peace to Ms. Fuller's family."