A judge on Monday upheld the convictions of seven men found guilty in a 1984 murder of a woman who was found beaten and sodomized in a northeast Washington garage.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg said the men, who argued their innocence in court earlier this year, had failed to present any scientific or DNA evidence that could exonerate them and said he wasn’t persuaded by witnesses who had recanted their earlier testimony.
“In recent years, particularly since the advent of forensic use of DNA, tragic cases of wrongful convictions of innocent persons have been uncovered,” Weisberg wrote in his 39-page opinion. “This case is not one of them.”
The men were convicted in the murder of Catherine Fuller, a mother of six who was attacked on the street on Oct. 1, 1984, then robbed, beaten and sodomized, and left in a garage in a northeast Washington alley. It was a high-profile case, stirring fear over random and unprovoked gang violence in a period when the nation’s capital grappled with a crack epidemic and a soaring murder rate.
Three people pleaded guilty in the trial, and another 10 went to trial. A jury acquitted two people, and concluded that eight men were involved in Fuller’s death. One of the eight men died in prison; another is out on parole.
The seven defendants who appealed their convictions said evidence showed Fuller was murdered by one or two people instead of being killed during the mass beating described at trial. They noted that several witnesses — including two accomplices who pleaded guilty — have since recanted their statements and say they were coerced by police and prosecutors, though the judge said he didn’t consider credible the witnesses’ new claims.
Weisberg partially accepted defense lawyers’ arguments that prosecutors should have turned over certain favorable evidence, but said none of the undisclosed information would have made any difference in the trial outcome.
Barry J. Pollack, an attorney for one of the defendants, Christopher Turner, said he found the existence of undisclosed information particularly troubling. He said he intends to appeal Monday’s decision on behalf of his client and that the failure to turn over evidence would be the focus of the appeal.
Pollack said he found it unfortunate that the judge focused on what he says is flawed testimony presented at the original trial and “failed to give full consideration” to evidence presented at the hearing that suggested a large group did not commit the crime.
Weisberg wrote in a footnote that the testimony of two witnesses who suggested the murder was not committed by a large group does not qualify as “new evidence.” He said the law “does not permit a defendant to reopen his case simply because he finds a new expert to look at old evidence and come to a different conclusion.” He added that both witnesses could not definitively state that Fuller was attacked by a small group, just that their opinion was it was more likely that was the case.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. said Monday that allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct were unfounded and that the evidence of guilt was “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,” the office said in a statement.