Six men wearing bright orange prison jumpsuits appeared in a D.C. courtroom today, seeking to overturn their decades-old convictions in a brutal murder by arguing the Justice Department failed to turn over critical evidence that could have helped them assert their innocence.
The men were snared in one of Washington, D.C.'s most horrific homicides: the sodomy and killing of 48-year-old Catherine Fuller as she walked through a rain soaked alley in the Northeast sector of the city on October 1, 1984. Christopher Turner, who had long maintained his innocence before he finally got out of prison on parole, was the focus of a story on NPR's Morning Edition last year. He is also challenging his conviction.
"This was a verdict of questionable validity," argued Rob Cary, a lawyer who made the opening statement for all of the men trying to throw out the case. "There is an avalanche of new information today that we submit undermines confidence in the verdict."
One of the best hopes for those men, however, was recently dashed when investigators determined that old DNA on clothing found during a move of the crime lab neither implicated nor exonerated any of the defendants convicted for their roles in the Fuller murder.
Four people who pointed to the guilt of some or all of those defendants at the 1985 trial have since recanted – changed their stories — and D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg will hear from them over the course of the two-week-long hearing.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Sweeney, who is leading the case for the Justice Department, told the judge that prosecutors still have plenty of other witnesses to implicate the neighborhood men in the crime.
"This is an incredibly complex case," Sweeney said. "The full record of what [the original government team] did, we stand by. Was it a perfect investigation? No, that doesn't exist....The final call is going to be if this court has confidence in the verdict."
The first witness for the men seeking to overturn the jury verdicts was Clifton Yarborough, who was 16 years old at the time of the murder. He allegedly confessed to police, then took back his confession and went to trial, where he was convicted. Cary, a lawyer for Yarborough, said his lawyers at the time failed to present evidence of his low I.Q. (recently measured at 69 ½) and gave him poor advice.
The other defendants say "tunnel vision" by police desperate for an arrest in the high profile case led to mistakes, such as failing to turn over materials that might have implicated another man in the brutal crime.
The case has been embraced by large D.C. law firms working for free, as well as the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project.