On October 1, 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.
Thirteen individuals were indicted. Harry Bennett and Calvin Alston, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the government. Bennett pleaded guilty to manslaughter and robbery, Alston to second-degree murder. James Campbell, whose case was severed for trial after his attorney became ill, eventually pleaded guilty as well. In 1985, after a jury trial, Alphonzo Harris and Felicia Ruffin were found not guilty, Charles S. Turner, Christopher D. Turner, Russell L. Overton, Levy Rouse, Clifton E. Yarborough, Kelvin D. Smith, Timothy Catlett and Steven Webb were convicted. Webb died in prison, the other seven appealed in 2012 after the discovery of favorable “Brady” evidence withheld by the government. Overton, Smith, Christopher Turner, Charles Turner, and Rouse put on alibi defenses.
In 2011, Barry Pollack, lawyer for Christopher Turner said “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.”
At trial in 1985, William Freeman, the street vendor who discovered Fuller’s body, testified that as he waited for the police to come, he saw two men run into the alley from 9th Street and stand very close to the garage for a few minutes. Freeman earlier had seen the two men walking up and down 8th Street. One of the men appeared to be concealing an object under his coat. When the police arrived, the two men ran away up the alley towards I Street. However the government did not disclose the identity of the two men. Freeman identified them to the police as James McMillan and Gerald Merkerson. It was McMillan who appeared to be hiding something under his coat.
Two other witnesses, not disclosed to the defense, told police they saw him at the alley at the same time Freeman did, and they confirmed Freeman’s observations of his suspicious behavior. In addition, the police knew that McMillan lived on 8th Street about three doors down from the alley and that he had violently assaulted and robbed two other middle-aged women walking in the vicinity three weeks after Fuller’s death.
McMillan committed the first of these robberies on October 24, 1984, in an alley behind the 1100 block of K Street Northeast. He approached the victim from behind, knocked her to the ground, grabbed her purse and fled. The next day, McMillan and a companion assaulted a woman in the 600 block of 12th Street Northeast. One of the two struck her in the face, breaking her nose, and stole the bag she was carrying.
At a hearing in 2012, the defense presented information about McMillan’s subsequent activities following his conviction of the two robberies that he committed in October 1984. McMillan was sentenced to serve eight to twenty-five years in prison. Two months after he was released from prison in July 1992, he killed a 22-year-old woman (“A.M.”) in an alley behind the 500 block of 8th Street Northeast, only a few blocks from where Fuller was murdered. This crime had some striking similarities to the attack on Fuller: McMillan abducted A.M. as she walked down the street and dragged her to a secluded spot in the alley, ransacking her personal belongings and leaving them strewn along the path of abduction. After forcing A.M. into a narrow space behind a parked car, McMillan stripped off her underwear, beat her ferociously, and sodomized her. A.M. suffered grievous injuries and died three days later. McMillan was convicted of her murder and remains incarcerated.
At the same 2012 hearing, the defense called two experts. Dr. Richard Callery, a forensic pathologist, testified that the cause of death for both Fuller and A.M. was blunt force trauma to the head and torso, and that each victim had suffered a traumatic anal sodomization resulting in severe internal injuries. Dr. Callery testified that, in his experience, anal sodomy with an object occurred in considerably less than one percent of homicide cases. In addition to Dr. Callery’s testimony, the defense presented a stipulation that, if he were called, an expert in sexual dysfunctions would testify that someone who commits an act of violent anal sodomy is likely to commit the act more than once.
The second witness was Larry McCann, an experienced homicide investigator who testified as an expert in violent crime analysis and crime scene reconstruction. It was McCann’s opinion, based on the autopsy report, crime scene photos and other investigation records, that the attack on Fuller was more likely committed by a single offender than by a large group of individuals acting together. Had there been multiple offenders, McCann testified, he would have expected to see the victim’s clothing stretched, torn, or ripped, grab marks or abrasions on her ankles, legs, and wrists, more injuries, and multiple sexual assaults rather than the one. McCann conceded that, even in a group attack, some assailants might only strike minor glancing blows.
The prosecution case
No fingerprint, DNA, or other forensic evidence implicated any defendant. Yarborough gave a confession, subsequently retracted. Although Bennett and Alston told similar stories, while Bennett testified that Yarborough did not accompany the group into the alley, Alston recalled that Yarborough actively participated in kicking Fuller as she lay on the ground there,while Bennett remembered that Alston and defendant Webb held Fuller’s legs as Rouse sodomized her, Alston thought defendants Overton and Charles Turner did so. In addition, Bennett and Alston each had made prior inconsistent statements to the police and the grand jury regarding who was present in the park and who participated in attacking Fuller.
Both Bennett and Alson subsequently recanted. To support the credibility of Alston’s and Bennett’s recantations, the defense called other witnesses who testified to the detectives’ heavy-handed interrogation tactics. In addition, over the government’s objection, appellants called an expert on the subject of false confessions. Dr. Richard Leo, opined that certain features of the interrogations of Alston and Bennett, such as the detectives’ use of deception, yelling, and threats or promises, were associated with a heightened risk of inducing false confessions. According to Dr. Leo, the errors and incongruities in the confessions of Alston and Bennett could be taken as “indicia of unreliability.”
The government did not disclose grand jury testimony supporting the alibi of a man named Lamont Bobbit, who Alston testified was present in the park and in the alley when Fuller was murdered. Bobbitt told the police he was elsewhere that evening, and in testimony before the grand jury, six witnesses corroborated his alibi. The prosecutors did not believe the alibi because of contradictions in the testimony, but they decided they nonetheless lacked sufficient evidence to charge Bobbitt with Fuller’s murder.
Four witnesses corroborated Bennett and Alston’s account. Two of them, Carrie Eleby and Linda Jacobs had significant credibility problems. Both were PCP users. Eleby contradicted herself, could not keep names and dates straight, and claimed she did not remember anything she had told the police or the grand jury. Jacobs contradicted herself on the stand and had trouble answering questions. Moreover, each witness’s account was impeached or contradicted by other testimony.
The third witness Melvin Montgomery only saw the group, not any crime, leaving the State’s case reliant on fourteen-year-old Maurice Thomas. Thomas testified that he passed the alley and saw a group of people surrounding and assaulting a woman. The prosecution did not disclose to the defense evidence that could have been used to impeach Thomas. At trial, Thomas testified that after he witnessed the attack in the alley, he ran home and told his aunt “Barbara” what he had seen. He claimed that Barbara told him not to say anything to anyone else. The police interviewed Barbara (whose real name was Dorothy Harris), and she said that she did not recall Thomas ever telling her anything about the attack.
Source: June 2015 Ruling and various news articles.
In December 2016, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments.
Briefs are available here including amicus briefs submitted by the Innocence Network and a group of former prosecutors.
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