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A Murder, 7 Convictions And Many Question Marks

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A Murder, 7 Convictions And Many Question Marks


A Murder, 7 Convictions And Many Question Marks

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In the fall of 1984, in a rain-soaked alley here in Washington, D.C., a street vendor found a woman dead on the floor of a garage. She was Catherine Fuller, mother of six, who left home to run a quick errand and never came back. She'd been beaten, sexually assaulted and killed near a busy street.


The murder of Catherine Fuller horrified and frightened the city. Over the next few months, police arrested 17 people in connection with the crime. Now a review by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project is exposing doubts about that police investigation and it raises questions about whether one of the young men convicted really took part in the attack.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story. And we do want to warn you that it contains descriptions of violence.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Coverage of the case played out every day in the papers and every night on the evening news.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. GARY REALS (Reporter): Four of the suspects, including 19-year-old Christopher Turner, were rousted from their beds, put into handcuffs and taken away.

JOHNSON: Back then, Chris Turner had graduated from high school and had a job tutoring local kids. He was trying to find a way out of the tight-knit neighborhood he had outgrown.

The Fuller case took him away - away to prison, for more than a quarter-century. He got out a few months ago. We met him in the old neighborhood in the same alley where police found the body of Catherine Fuller.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER TURNER: This is actually my first time back through here in over, what, 26 years. It's still baffling to me that they believed that, you know, I could do something like that to another human being.

JOHNSON: Here's how the prosecutors say it all went down: A bunch of kids was hanging out near a bus shelter during rush hour on a rainy October afternoon. Witnesses recalled the boys were singing a song by the D.C. musician Chuck Brown.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CHUCK BROWN (Singer): (Singing) I'm gonna lay it down back on the line. A dollar bill is a friend of mine. We need money. We need money. Talk about money, y'all. Talk about money, y'all.

JOHNSON: Then some of the kids spotted Catherine Fuller walking nearby through the rain, a bunch of curlers in her hair. The guys allegedly came at her in two groups, as Gary Reals reported on local TV.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. REALS: Mrs. Fuller was allegedly followed into the alley by the 8th and H Crew. Police say it was intended to be a robbery but she apparently fought back.

JOHNSON: And when she stopped struggling, one of them assaulted her with a pipe. No one denies it was a horrible scene. Authorities said the murder was the work of a dangerous gang.

The Fuller killing struck a nerve. It spoke to fears that something new and dangerous was moving through the city.

Prosecutors argued dozens of people may have stood and watched in the alley while Mrs. Fuller suffered. Chris Turner's lawyer isn't so sure.

Mr. BARRY POLLACK (Lawyer): We do know that there were street vendors along the street who were there the entire time, and they didn't report seeing any crowd of people in the alley.

JOHNSON: That's Barry Pollack. He's a defense lawyer with experience helping people who have been wrongfully convicted. Now, he's trying to clear Chris Turner's name, get a judge to overturn the conviction and order a new trial. Turner, who had no prior criminal record, has always maintained his innocence. In fact, he says the U.S. Marshals providing security for the trial thought so too.

Mr. TURNER: At the conclusion, while the jury was deliberating, they was already preparing my paperwork. They were so sure that I would actually be acquitted that they was preparing my paperwork, and I thought I was going to walk.

JOHNSON: Two boys from the neighborhood who were near the alley the day of the murder pleaded guilty and testified at the trial. After more than 60 different votes, jurors eventually found Chris Turner guilty. But Pollack says there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the government's case.

There was never any physical evidence tying any of the defendants to the crime scene. The guys who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial did so because they got shorter prison sentences. And then an even bigger complaint: Prosecutors never turned over statements from several witnesses that would have placed another suspect near the alley that day: James McMillan.

He went to jail for crimes against women that took place within a few weeks of the Fuller attack. Again, defense attorney Pollack...

Mr. POLLACK: The government never disclosed to the defense they had three eyewitnesses who saw McMillan leaving the crime scene right around the time that the body was found.

JOHNSON: Authorities say it's not clear whether James McMillan was ever questioned in the Fuller case. But Pollack, who's working with the Innocence Project in D.C., thinks McMillan may well have been involved in the murder. He lived only steps away from the same alley where Mrs. Fuller's body was found. A few years later, he was convicted of assaulting and killing a woman in another D.C. alley. He acted alone.

Mr. JIM TRAINUM (Washington, D.C. Police Detective, Retired): I interviewed him, and during my interview he's one of the few people that actually scared me.

JOHNSON: That's Jim Trainum, a retired D.C. police detective. He says McMillan emerged as a suspect in one of his burglary cases back in those days.

Mr. TRAINUM: He was a boxer, and I mean, if he wanted to, he could have come across that table and done me all sorts of harm, and I couldn't have stopped him.

JOHNSON: McMillan's serving a life sentence in Kentucky. He didn't respond to a letter from NPR. And he's never been charged with any wrongdoing in the Fuller case.

Prosecutors in D.C. wouldn't talk on tape because the Fuller murder is very much an open issue. A judge in the city has asked to hear testimony from government witnesses who have recanted - changed their stories - including the men who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial all those years ago. He also wants to hear from the retired prosecutors.

And then, late last year, what could be a break in the case: D.C. officials were preparing to close an old warehouse stuffed with evidence. And Detective Jim Trainum turned up three boxes filled with material from the Fuller murder.

What kind of stuff was in those boxes?

Mr. TRAINUM: The very stuff they really needed to analyze this case. The victim's clothing - there was semen found on the victim's clothing, hairs and fibers that were taken from the victim. And these were things that could be compared to the folks who were charged and who are currently in jail. And they could also be compared to other suspects as well.

JOHNSON: The judge has ordered DNA tests on all of that material, including new tests that look for skin cells left behind when a victim's clothes are grabbed. But prosecutors say even if they find someone else's DNA on Mrs. Fuller's clothes, that doesn't mean that Chris Turner didn't do it.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, researches wrongful convictions.

Professor BRANDON GARRETT (University of Virginia): We know that eyewitnesses can make serious mistakes now, and we know that people can falsely confess, and we know that people can plead guilty when they are innocent.

JOHNSON: Chris Turner knows the trial all those years ago still lives in a lot of people's minds.

Mr. TURNER: Guys, people on the bus stopped me the other day and screamed out on the bus, I saw you're on TV, man. That's messed up what they did to y'all, man. And you know, guys that I haven't seen in 26 years, they recognize me.

JOHNSON: But Turner knows he won't shake the past so easily.

Mr. TURNER: Even if I'm exonerated, it'll still be I'm one of the guys who was convicted of the Fuller murder.

JOHNSON: And Chris Turner says he'll carry that around with him for the rest of his life.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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